CHICAGO (CBS) -- The Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce met last week with Wal-Mart representatives to discuss a controversial possible new store in the neighborhood.
Chamber of commerce executive director Maureen Martino said on Tuesday of last week, members of the chamber met with Wal-Mart representatives about possible plans for a store in the Broadway at Surf retail complex, located in the 2800 block of North Broadway.
The chamber is hoping that Wal-Mart will not move into the neighborhood, but, "I think we have to treat everyone fairly," Martino said. But the chamber has yet to be presented with any specific plans from Wal-Mart, she said.
"We don't even know what they're bringing into the area," Martino said. "All this speculation has been made in the media; they haven't presented us with any sort of blueprint or proposal made to the community."
At the meeting last week, the chamber addressed concerns that Wal-Mart does not fit with the nature of the neighborhood, which has some big-box retail but is dominated largely by small, independent businesses, and is "different from other parts of the city that may have food deserts," Martino said.
When Wal-Mart got the green light for expansion within the Chicago city limits last year, store representatives said the retailer planned to focus on building stores in so-called food deserts in the city's West and South Sides.
The greatest concern for the community is the possible effect on small businesses, Martino said. Near the planned Wal-Mart site, an assortment of locally-operated shops line Broadway, Diversey Parkway and Clark Street.
"For the most part of it, this community was built on independent shops," Martino said. "There are very vested business owners in this community. When it was prostitutes and drug dealers, it was independent business owners that built the community up."
Martino said studies have shown Wal-Mart has an adverse effect on small businesses, and in this case, "with not knowing the effect (Wal-Mart) is going to have, we certainly don't want our small businesses going out."
On its Web site, the chamber says small businesses will not be able to compete with Wal-Mart, and if a Wal-Mart store opens, "the future landscape of our business district will showcase vacancies and will be difficult to attract and retain quality and unique independent stores."
The chamber is hoping for research from Wal-Mart about how small businesses might be affected, Martino said.
Meanwhile, signs reading, "Wal-Mart: Not in My Neighborhood" have been posted inside the doors of some businesses in the area.
Ultimately, the chamber cannot stop Wal-Mart from opening a store in the neighborhood, Martino said, but its members hope their concerns will be heeded.
"The bottom line – legally, there's only so much you can do when the zoning is set and they're ready to move in, but we hope that they recognize that this type of model may not work in this neighborhood," Martino said.
For its part, Wal-Mart is not commenting on any plans for a store in East Lakeview.
In a statement Wednesday, Wal-Mart spokesman Steve Restivo said, "We have not announced any projects at Lakeview but continue to evaluate opportunities across the city – via stores small and large – to create jobs and expand access to affordable, healthy food."
He pointed out that plans six stores of various sizes have been announced in the city – Supercenters at 111th Street and the Bishop Ford Freeway and at 83rd Street and Stewart Avenue; mid-size Neighborhood Market stores at 76th Street and Ashland Avenue and in the Presidential Towers, 555 W. Madison St.; and convenience store-style Wal-Mart Express stores at 71st Street and Western Avenue, and in the same shopping center as one of the Supercenters at 83rd Street and Holland Road.
Only one Wal-Mart is now in operation within the city limits, at North and Kilpatrick avenues on the city's West Side.
Rumors of the a Wal-Mart store moving into the East Lakeview neighborhood started in December, when Crain's Chicago Business and the Chicago Sun-Times both reported that Wal-Mart had filed a letter of intent for space in the Broadway at Surf complex and that a lease had been executed. The rumored Wal-Mart was to be a 30,000 square-foot Neighborhood Market focusing on groceries and limited general merchandise.
But at a December community meeting, Tunney read a statement saying Wal-Mart had not signed a lease or letter of intent at the Broadway at Surf building. The retailer only said it was evaluating "a number of potential opportunities."
In the time since then, a Facebook group dedicated to fighting the Wal-Mart has remained active with more than 600 members, but otherwise talk of a possible Wal-Mart quieted for a while.
That changed just last week, when Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) said at a meeting of the South East Lake View Neighbors Association that he had met with Wal-Mart representatives. Meanwhile, the owners of the Broadway at Surf building are resisting a proposed zoning change that would limit new stores on the west side of the 2800 block of North Broadway, and the east side of the 2800 block of North Clark Street, to a maximum of 25,000 square feet.
At the meeting on March 14, Mid-America Real Estate leasing agency principal Dick Spinell and attorney Rich Klawiter said the downzoning would devalue the property and pose problems for the financing and refinancing of debt. They also said downzoning the building would limit options for future tenants, some of which the community might desire to bring in.
As to Wal-Mart, they said the firm has had discussions with the retailer, but, said Klawiter, "Wal-Mart has told us that we are not authorized to speak for them." But community activist Bruce Alan Beal expressed concern at the meeting that they might be seeking to "sneak a Wal-Mart in here that might end up being larger than 25,000 square feet."
The Broadway at Surf complex opened in 1997, and is currently anchored by a Bed, Bath and Beyond; a T.J. Maxx store and a Cost Plus World Market. It also includes a Sprint Store, a Palm Beach Tan salon and a Midwest Orthopaedics clinic.
But spaces previously occupied by a PetSmart, a Wolf Camera, a Hollywood Video store and a Maui Wowi Hawaiian coffee shop have sat vacant for several months.
Wal-Mart representatives are expected to attend a South East Lake View Neighbors Association meeting next month.
Adam Harrington, cbschicago.com
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