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Chicago Alderman To New Yorkers: Wal-Mart Is A ‘Boon’

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Chicago Wal-Mart Supercenter

Chicago’s first and, to date, only Wal-Mart store opened in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side in 2006. (CBS)

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CHICAGO (CBS) – As controversy heats up over a possible Wal-Mart store in New York City, an alderman from the West Side of Chicago is telling New Yorkers that Wal-Mart is a “boon.”

Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) represents the ward with the only Wal-Mart store currently in operation within the Chicago city limits, at North and Kilpatrick avenues in the North Austin neighborhood.

In an op-ed this past Sunday in the New York Daily News, Mitts takes issue with a 2009 study by the University of Illinois at Chicago and Loyola University. The study claimed the North Austin store has not increased retail opportunities or jobs since it opened in 2006.

The 2009 study indicated that many smaller stores near the North Austin Wal-Mart went out of business and cost the area the equivalent of 300 full-time jobs, canceling out the number of jobs the Wal-Mart added.

New York City public advocate Bill DeBlasio in turn referred to the study in his own report. DeBlasio blamed the Chicago Wal-Mart for putting 82 businesses out of business and leading to a net loss of jobs in the area.

But contrary to the study, Mitts claims that Wal-Mart has actually brought new business and has revitalized the area.

“Wal-Mart has been a boon to my constituents on the far West Side of Chicago. The change is obvious. No academic research, especially not a flawed research report, will convince me otherwise,” she wrote.

Mitts wrote that Menard’s, Food4Less, Aldi, CVS and Burlington Coat Factory – as well as two banks – have opened within half a mile since Wal-Mart came to the neighborhood.

“Anyone who visits my ward can see how new retailers have risen from vacant lots and abandoned manufacturing facilities, bringing jobs for real Chicago residents and a tangible sense of renewed hope to my community,” she wrote. “In addition, Walmart has already generated more than $20 million in new tax revenue for Chicago, our county and our public transportation authority.”

Wal-Mart is considering opening a store in Brooklyn, and has mounted a splashy marketing campaign with a Web site and radio ads, WCBS-TV reported. But some merchants are worried that they will be driven out of business.

“I think it would look like a ghost town if Wal-Mart was to come,” said Mark Tanis, who manages a store called Shoppers World in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood, near the location Wal-Mart is reportedly targeting.

Currently, there are no Wal-Mart stores in any of the five boroughs of New York City.

In Chicago, Wal-Mart was given the green light for expansion last year, and the City Council has approved plans for two more stores. They are set to open next year, in the Pullman Park development at 111th Street and the Bishop Ford Freeway, and at 83rd Street and Stewart Avenue in the Chatham neighborhood.

Wal-Mart Director of Community Affairs Steve Restivo told CBS 2 in July 2010 that the retailer is planning “several dozen stores across the city over the next five years,” some of them small stores of just 20,000 to 30,000 square feet.

Wal-Mart finally got the green light for expansion last year after it reached a deal with labor unions to set starting wages at $8.75 per hour, which is 50 cents less than unions had wanted.

But that did not mark the end of the controversy over Wal-Mart expansion in Chicago. Last month, a fury erupted in the East Lakeview neighborhood when rumors cropped up that Wal-Mart was planning to open a “Neighborhood Market” store on a dense and largely upscale retail strip on Broadway.

Crain’s Chicago Business and the Chicago Sun-Times both reported that Wal-Mart was eyeing an empty space in the Broadway at Surf complex just north of the junction with Clark Street and Diversey Parkway. A PetSmart in the complex closed last year, and reports indicated that Wal-Mart had signed a letter of intent – or even executed a lease – to open a small-scale market with groceries and general merchandise.

Within 24 hours, an outcry erupted among neighborhood residents. Area resident Bruce Beal formed a Facebook group, “Stop the Lakeview/Lincoln Park Wal-Mart,” and David Winner, a challenger to Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), called on Tunney to block any deal for a Wal-Mart on the site. But at a subsequent community meeting, Tunney read a statement indicating that Wal-Mart does not plan to open a store on the site.

The controversy fell out of the headlines after that, but the Facebook group remains active, albeit far less so. Some neighbors have expressed concern that Wal-Mart might still consider opening a store in the neighborhood, even without the input or the support of the community.

Meanwhile, another report surfaced last month that Wal-Mart might be considering a new location at 2501 N. Elston Ave., in a Near Northwest Side corridor already loaded with big-box retail.

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