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Polk Family’s $20 Million Navy Pier Donation A Gift To Chicagoans

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Derrick Blakley Derrick Blakley
Derrick Blakley is a general assignment reporter for CBS 2...
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(CBS) – It was legendary Chicago planner Daniel Burnham who called it “the people’s pier.”

Now, renovation of Navy Pier is getting a major boost from the family that created what was very much a “people’s” store.

CBS 2’s Derrick Blakley reports.

The Polk family is donating $20 million to give a new face to Navy Pier.

“This was a business that was successful because of Chicago, and so we’re turning it around and giving it back to the people of Chicago,” Sarah Polk Guthman, chairman of the Polk Brothers Foundation, said Thursday.

In their legendary stores, they gave back by cutting prices. The five brothers – and one sister – created the first discount appliance stores anywhere in the nation.

“There was not an appliance store in Chicago when Polk Brothers opened up. Everything was bought at the department stores, at full retail price,” Bruce Bachmann of the foundation said.

But by 1992, intense competition forced the stores out of business.

“Everybody who arrived here after the mid-90s doesn’t remember Polk Brothers. So, this is a way of telling the story, of just sort of reminding people,” Polk Guthman says.

The upgraded entrance space will be renamed Polk Brothers Park, with a dazzling fountain, a wider promendade and two grassy spaces for performing arts.

“If the lake is our front yard, this will be Chicago’s front door to visitors from around the world,” Mayor Emanuel said.

The pier is the Midwest’s most popular attraction, with 9 million visitors a year. But the Polks aren’t doing this for out-of-towners.

“The tourists are welcome and we’re very happy that they’re coming here. But we’re doing this for the people of Chicagoland,” Polk Guthman said.

Seventy percent of Navy Pier’s visitors are from the Chicago area.

This is hardly the Polk family’s first stab at philanthropy. Since the stores closed, their foundation has given $300 million to help the needy through Chicago area non-profits.

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