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No Warm Greeting For Wal-Mart At Community Meeting

UPDATED 04/12/11 6:11 a.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) – A proposed Wal-Mart in the East Lakeview neighborhood received a not-so-warm welcome Monday night, even though representatives of the mega-retailer characterized the project as a downsized store that would sell mostly groceries.

The big box chain tried to sell its plan for a "Neighborhood Market" store in the Broadway at Surf retail complex, located in the 2800 block of North Broadway. The possibility of a Wal-Mart has generated intense debate among local residents and merchants who are leery of the chain and its potential impact on local independent businesses.

Wal-Mart tried to allay fears by saying the area needs a grocery store. The store it would build would be one-fifth the size of a typical Wal-Mart and would be limited to food items, produce, beauty products and pharmacy items.

The store would also sell "limited" general merchandise, such as computer printer paper and other items as neighbors saw fit, but would not sell items such as electronics, apparel, home furnishings and hardware as would be seen in a larger Wal-Mart Supercenter, Wal-Mart spokesman John Bisio said.

"This is one Wal-Mart store certainly of a different size and scope," Bisio told a large crowd at the Wellington Avenue Church, 615 W. Wellington Ave.

Bisio said the store would create 75 to 100 new jobs, and would engage the community to identify local organizations and causes to support, which he said would likely include jobs and skills training, environmental concerns, and sustainability.

For the first time, Wal-Mart presented a layout for the planned store. It would take over two existing storefronts in the 110,000 square-foot retail complex, which is on the west side of Broadway from Surf Street south to the building that houses a soon-to-be-shuttered Borders bookstore.

The blueprint for the Wal-Mart store shows one area set aside for fresh produce and refrigerator cases for dairy and frozen items, and another area for dry goods and non-food products, as well as a pharmacy.

The Wal-Mart store would occupy a vacant storefront where a PetSmart closed last year, but would also displace an existing store – the Cost Plus World Market at 2844 N. Broadway, which has been in business since the Broadway at Surf opened in 1997.

Dick Spinell, principal of building property manager Mid-America Real Estate Group, said if plans for the Wal-Mart went ahead, World Market would have to close its location in the building. While the World Market store draws crowds for weekend wine tastings and other events, Spinell said the store has been struggling and is "likely to go away regardless of what we do here."

More than 150 people attended the meeting. Most attendees wore buttons protesting the arrival of Wal-Mart, and after Bisio spoke, dozens of people lined up to voice their opposition to Wal-Mart moving into the neighborhood.

"My biggest concern is that this doesn't end with cheap groceries," one skeptic said at Monday's public meeting. "I see a lot of empty real estate nearby. I think it would be very easy for the product line to be expanded well beyond groceries, to have a serious impact on our local merchants and destroy our budding urban renewal."

Mark Thomas, owner of the Alley alternative apparel store and several other businesses at Clark Street and Belmont Avenue, took Wal-Mart to task for a report in Crain's Chicago Business this week that said the contractor that built the Wal-Mart at North and Kilpatrick avenues on the West Side had gone bankrupt. Thomas also said a Wal-Mart would adversely affect the character of the community.

"You folks have a responsibility here, and that is if you are not going to consider how you shop, Lakeview is going to look like Woodfield Mall," Thomas told the crowd.

Others emphasized that unlike other communities that Wal-Mart has said it plans to enter in the city, East Lakeview is not a "food desert." Neighbor Jill Zenoff rattled off a list of nearby grocery stores, among them The Market Place, 521 W. Diversey Pkwy.; Milk and More, 702 W. Diversey Pkwy.; and a Trader Joe's that is soon to open at 667 W. Diversey Pkwy.

Bisio responded that while food deserts have been an emphasis for Wal-Mart, "we do have an obligation to other parts of Chicago," and a store at the Broadway at Surf would be the best option for neighbors in the immediate vicinity.

Still others expressed concern that Wal-Mart would drive out small businesses and cost the neighborhood jobs, wondered if Wal-Mart would commit to support for the area's large gay and lesbian community, and criticized the retailer for not offering a "living wage" and resisting attempts by workers to unionize.

Bisio said the starting wage of $8.75 per hour would only be for workers with "zero" experience, who would constitute a minority. He also claimed that Wal-Mart workers do not need union representation because "they don't need to pay somebody dues to get a competitive wage."

Many neighbors did not hesitate to say they do not want Wal-Mart in the neighborhood at all. Neighbor Dan Crowe called on Ald. Tom Tunney (44th), who was present at the meeting, to "do everything practically possible and legally possible to prevent this scourge."

The Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce has also come out against the proposed Wal-Mart, over concerns that it would drive the many small merchants in the neighborhood out of business. At the meeting, chamber executive director Maureen Martino said small merchants constitute 80 percent of the businesses in East Lakeview, and said "they built this community 30 years ago when nobody wanted to live here."

Martino said Wal-Mart had not offered research to show an East Lakeview store would be successful, or the impact it would have on small businesses.

A couple of people spoke in support of Wal-Mart, including a man who said the community should "bring Wal-Mart in" to provide jobs and affordable prices to the low-income residents of Lakeview. But only a few people clapped after the supporters' comments, while many Wal-Mart opponents generated thunderous applause at the meeting.

As talk has heated up in recent weeks, signs reading "Wal-Mart: Not in My Neighborhood" – showing a frowning Wal-Mart smiley icon -- have been posted in the doors of some businesses in the area.

Before the meeting Monday, restaurant owner Sam Giarratano said 80 percent of his customers are against a neighborhood Wal-Mart.

"It's upsetting," he told CBS 2's Dana Kozlov. "What we're looking at is a track record of what Wal-Mart represents."

He and other business leaders say Wal-Mart's record includes decimating small businesses located around the big box store.

Tunney, through a spokesman, said the elected leader wants to weigh community feedback before deciding whether to back Wal-Mart. He only spoke at the Monday evening meeting to outline the proposal and introduce Bisio and the Wal-Mart representatives.

CBS 2's Mike Parker and Web Producer Adam Harrington contributed to this report.

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