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UPDATED 01/25/12 11:16 a.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — The parking lot was full at the new store all morning long. Customers who flooded in said the new jobs, fresh produce and proximity to their homes were the biggest perks.
The doors opened at the new Wal-Mart at 83rd Street and Stewart Avenue around 8:30 a.m., after a ribbon-cutting with accompaniment from the marching band at nearby Simeon Academy
Yvonne Wesley was one of the first shoppers at the new Supercenter.
“It’s great for the neighborhood. We’ve been waiting for it. It’s finally here,” she said. “I’m excited.”
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Bernie Tafoya reports
Bridgette Dew said she had been waiting several years to see the retail giant open a supercenter near her home.
“I don’t know why it took so long,” Dew said. “I know they were fighting because they wanted union jobs, but jobs are jobs these days.”
Ald. Howard Brookins (21st) has been working to get the store opened for several years. But back in 2004, when Wal-Mart was expressing interest in expanding within the Chicago city limits, labor unions fought to keep the retailer from opening.
“Today is a good day, because it represents the conclusion of a political fight that played out for over eight years,” Brookins said.
He said the store is a welcome sight, given the relative dearth of grocery stores in the area, and that he is glad the unions finally agreed to compromise two years ago.
“The unions got people to believe that it was better not to work than to work at a Wal-Mart. That kind of sums it up in a nutshell,” Brookins said outside the new store Wednesday morning. “But I saw it differently. I saw that kids needed a break – those kids right across the street at Simeon High School needed a place to work after school.”
Wal-Mart opened its first store in the city, a supercenter at North and Kilpatrick avenues on the city’s West Side, in 2006.
But until the past year, that was the city’s only Wal-Mart. Expansion plans were put on hold when the City Council passed an ordinance that required big-box retailers to pay a minimum of $10 per hour and $3 hourly in benefits.
Since-retired Mayor Richard M. Daley vetoed the ordinance not long after it was passed.
Wal-Mart finally got the green light for expansion in 2010, when 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 more than minimum wage.
At the West Chatham Supercenter, roughly 75 percent of the 350 jobs were to be filled by South Side residents, and most of them will be full time.
A total of 6,000 people applied for jobs.
“For this community to get it, it’s a big step up,” said Wal-Mart associate Ghasmine Wilder, who hadn’t been working for a whole year and a half after having a baby.
Another new Wal-Mart associate, Lanesha Warmack, said she is excited to work in a store so close to home.
“It means a lot to be in my own community,” Warmack said. “The last time I worked was in 2007. I’ve got a 3-year-old son, so money has been hard.”
Wal-Mart points out that General Manager Keith Richards was an hourly worker 11 years ago, and is now the boss at the store.
Meanwhile, Chatham area residents hoped the store would bring positive change for the neighborhood.
“For the short term, this is going to be great, and definitely I’m going to shop here; I’d shop here anyway,” said Chatham resident J.P. Paulus. “But in the long term, will there be partnerships with the struggling independent businesses that are here?”
The Citywide Wal-Mart Expansion Plan
Restivo said Wal-Mart was looking across the whole city for possible store sites, “with a special focus on the South and West sides – especially in those self-identified food deserts.”
In July of last year, the nation’s first Wal-Mart Express store was built across the street from the new Supercenter, at 83rd Street and Holland Road.
A slightly larger Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market store opened in February of last year in the Presidential Towers at 555 W. Madison St. Another opened in late November of last year at 3636 N. Broadway in the East Lakeview neighborhood, in the former Recycled Paper Greetings card company building.
While Wal-Mart has been welcomed with open arms for its promise of jobs and fresh produce in some neighborhoods, it has met with resistance and hostility and others.
In particular, when Wal-Mart announced plans for a Neighborhood Market store at in the Broadway at Surf retail complex about a mile south of the East Lakeview neighborhood store that is now open, a community uproar resulted.
Neighbors, local businesses and community groups, including the Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce, said the store would decimate the many locally-owned small businesses along Broadway and other nearby commercial strips, and permanently change the character of the neighborhood for worse.
There were also concerns that Wal-Mart might expand to the entire building.
Community activist Bruce Alan Beal launched a Facebook group, “Stop the Lakeview/Lincoln Park Wal-Mart,” which drew more than 960 members in its five months online. In April of last year, when Wal-Mart spokesman John Bisio presented plans for the store to neighbors, a standing-room only crowd outfitted in anti-Wal-Mart buttons showed up.
But opposition died down after Wal-Mart agreed to a “restrictive covenant,” which would legally limit the store to 33,395 square feet – actually slightly more space than the retailer is planning to take – so as to allow for small expansions for “administrative” purposes. If Wal-Mart elects to expand in violation of the agreement, the restrictive covenant allows the community to take the retailer to court to stop the expansion.
And while some neighbors called on Tunney to oppose the Broadway at Surf Wal-Mart, he refused to do so. At the community meeting last spring, Tunney said as far as Wal-Mart expanding in Chicago – and Lakeview – that ship sailed with an agreement with organized labor last summer, and “discriminating” against the retailer now would open up the city to litigation.
As of a couple of weeks ago, Wal-Mart had yet to sign a lease for the Broadway at Surf location, which would take over two empty storefronts once occupied by a PetSmart and a Wolf Camera, and sweep out a popular Cost Plus World Market store that has operated in the retail complex since 1997.
Wal-Mart has signed leases for smaller-scale stores at 76th Street and Ashland Avenue in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, at 71st Street and Western Avenue in the West Englewood neighborhood, and in the old Pearl art supply store at 225 W. Chicago Ave. in the River North neighborhood.
A supercenter is also planned for 111th Street and Doty Avenue in the Pullman neighborhood. It is set to open later this year.