Reporting Lisa Fielding
UPDATED 12/14/10 5:16 a.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — Some folks in the Lakeview neighborhood have been fighting mad about rumors that a Wal-Mart store was coming to their back yard.
But as CBS 2’s Mike Parker reports, they’re feeling a little relieved because of a last-minute announcement Monday night from 44th Ward Ald. Tom Tunney.
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A huge commercial site at Broadway and Surf Street was purportedly to be the location of a new 30,000-square-foot Wal-Mart grocery and general merchandise store.
Published reports in Crain’s Chicago Business and the Chicago Sun-Times said a letter of intent from the retailer had been filed and that a lease had been executed. Several sources presented a planned Wal-Mart as a done deal, with headlines such as “Congratulations, Lakeview! You’re Getting a Wal-Mart!!!” splashing across the blogosphere.
Tunney tried to quiet the storm at a Monday night meeting of the South East Lakeview Neighborhood Association. About 100 Wal-Mart opponents packed the pews at the Wellington Avenue Church, 615 W. Wellington Ave., as Tunney addressed them with a microphone in hand.
“Wal-Mart had never approached me about any interest in Lakeview — period ,” he said. “I was as surprised as anyone.”
Tunney read a statement from the company saying there is no such lease, no such letter of intent, for the Broadway at Surf building. The retailer did say it is evaluating “a number of potential opportunities” in Chicago, however.
At the meeting, Tunney said several tenants have expressed an interest a space in the Broadway at Surf, which was recently vacated by a PetSmart store. Among them is Target, as well as Roundy’s grocery store, which is expanding in Chicago under the name Mariano’s. It was not clear how much space would be required for the prospective new stores, or whether any of the existing businesses in the 13,500 square-foot building would be affected.
If Wal-Mart settles on Lakeview, the company will face some vocal adversaries in the North Side neighborhood.
“This is a neighborhood of very unique stores, and the history of Wal-Mart is they are very devastating to the retailers in the immediate area,” said Jim Littwin, who moved to the area four months ago.
The head of the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce claims that historically, 25 percent of surrounding independent stores go under after Wal-Mart moves in.
“I’m extremely worried about it; not only in Lakeview. It grows like a cancer,” Maureen Martino said.
At the meeting, Martino painted a bleak picture of what could happen to the neighborhood if a Wal-Mart moved in. She said small businesses could fail en masse and leave vacant storefronts, which in turn could end up being occupied by downmarket businesses such as currency exchanges or payday loan stores.
Martino also said 1.4 jobs at small businesses are lost for every job created a Wal-Mart, contrary to claims that Wal-Mart brings new jobs to any area where it opens a store.
The owner of Hanig Shoes, a fixture in the neighborhood for more than a half century, says small businesses add to a neighborhood.
“I think that small businesses give back to the community,” Peter Hanig said. “They create relationships in the community that large corporations don’t.”
Many residents also declared their opposition to any Wal-Mart store because of the company’s wage and union policies. One shopper, Olivia Gude, said she is “absolutely horrified” by the company’s practices.
Several neighbors and small business owners discussed possible ways to keep Wal-Mart out of the area, and Tunney said he did not expect Wal-Mart to muscle its way into a community that was roundly against it. But if Wal-Mart presented a proposal, Tunney said he is responsible for listening to it as with any business rather than “saying Wal-Mart, no way, no how.”
But not everyone at the meeting was convinced that a Wal-Mart store selling groceries was cause for quite such a panic.
Greg O’Neill, owner of the Pastoral Artisan Cheese shop at 2945 N. Broadway, said he was not concerned that a hypothetical discount gourmet cheese counter at a Wal-Mart could cut into his business. He pointed out that when his store opened, a Dominick’s was located nearby and the stores coexisted peacefully. The Dominick’s at 3012 N. Broadway burned down in 2005.
Tunney said he welcomes new business to the area, but it can’t come at the expense of fellow retailers.
The Broadway at Surf complex opened in 1997, following the demolition of an entire block that once included the Times Square video arcade and the Paradise/Phoenix nightclub, among other small businesses. The building is already zoned for big-box retail, and currently includes a Bed, Bath and Beyond; a Cost Plus World Market; a T.J. Maxx; a Sprint Store; and a Palm Beach Tan salon, as well as a Midwest Orthopaedics clinic.
But in addition to the PetSmart space, storefronts previously occupied by a Wolf Camera store, a Hollywood Video, and the Maui Wowi Hawaiian coffee and smoothie café, all lie vacant now.
Despite the “no lease and no letter” statement by Wal-Mart, the company has left the door open to making a move on Lakeview and other similar neighborhoods somewhere down the line.
CBS 2′s Mike Parker and Web Producer Adam Harrington, and WBBM Newsradio 780′s Lisa Fielding, contributed to this report.