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The Only Option?

Alderman Anthony Beale says Walmart is the only retailer interested in Pullman. But more union-friendly retailers say nobody asked them.

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The fight over a proposed new development in Pullman on the far south side has so far been focused on whether it should include a new Walmart, and the development's main cheerleader in the City Council, Ninth Ward alderman Anthony Beale, has defended the inclusion of the controversial retailer by saying it's his only choice—several other big-box firms have turned him down. He's made it sound like he was on a mad dash to find a prom date, and all the pretty girls were already taken.

But some are disputing his version of events—starting with the big-box retailers who allegedly spurned him.

Last month Beale told the Chicago Plan Commission, which has to sign off on such projects, that he'd hoped to avoid another Walmart showdown in the City Council. Back in 2004 the council narrowly approved plans for the city's first Walmart, on the west side, but shot down a proposal for another on the south side. Two years later Walmart critics in the council—including Beale—passed the so-called living-wage ordinance, a union-backed measure that would have required big-box retailers to pay at least $10 an hour plus $3 in benefits. But Mayor Daley vetoed it, and supporters couldn't muster the votes to override the veto.

Union leaders retaliated by funneling resources to sympathetic candidates in the 2007 municipal elections.

"Walmart wasn't our first choice," Beale told the plan commission shortly before it rubber-stamped the project. "I worked with the unions as far as trying to get other retailers to come to this particular site."

Beale went so far as to say the entire project would be doomed unless Walmart were part of it—an argument eagerly accepted by the commission as well as the Tribune editorial board, which chastised aldermen who opposed the project.

Pullman is, of course, named for industrialist George Pullman, a guy who was so hated by union workers that when he died in 1897 he was buried in the middle of the night in a cement-covered coffin. The 180-acre site in question once housed a Ryerson steel facility. The redevelopment plan pitched by Beale includes more than 800 homes, a community center, a hotel, and two big-box stores, including the city's second Walmart.

Beale says he worked with union leaders to try and interest Jewel-Osco, Dominick's, Target, Costco, and Ikea so it didn't have to rely on Walmart. Jewel and Dominick's are unionized, and union leaders and "living wage" advocates say other big-box retailers offer employees better pay, benefits, and advancement opportunities than Walmart (tThough in the last couple years Target has fiercly resisted attempts to organize at some of its stores.)

But representatives for several of those retailers told me they were never approached by Beale, the site's developer, or anyone else about opening a new store in Pullman.

"No one at all has contacted Jewel-Osco about building a store in the development," spokeswoman Karen May e-mailed.

"We definitely have not been in talks with anyone in Chicago about opening a store," said Ikea spokesman Joseph Roth. "We don't recall anything like that." Roth added that Ikea was not "pursuing another location in Chicago at this moment."

"We have no documents on anything about that project," Target spokesman Kyle Thompson said.

Costco chairman Jeff Brotman was less certain; he said he doesn't remember anyone approaching the company about Pullman. "I know nothing of that," he said. "I'd be a bit surprised if someone didn't tell me."

Wynona Redmond, a spokeswoman for Dominick's, said she "couldn't confirm or not confirm" whether the company had been approached. "I don't see why you wouldn't believe [Beale]," she said.

David Doig, a former Park District superintendent, heads the nonprofit developer for the project, Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives. He says a broker for a firm called Mid-America Real Estate contacted other brokers who work with the retailers, and the broker, Dick Spinell, provided reports on those contacts and their results. But Doig declined to share the reports. "Those are in-house documents," he said. Spinell did not return calls for this story.

Beale says the retailers are being less than forthcoming. "They may be playing games with you," he said. "Here's a big, gorgeous site and they said no. We reached out to a lot of them. I guarantee you that we reached out to a lot of them."

Beale says he worked with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881 to try to find an alternative to Walmart. Marina Faz-Huppert, the legislative and political director for the union, says union reps did work with Beale—but not on the Pullman project.

"We had talked about putting him in contact with other retailers, but that was in part of a different development at 115th and Michigan" a few blocks away in the Roseland neighborhood, she said. The 115th and Michigan site has taken more than a decade and cost at least $3 million in taxpayer money to get off the ground. Beale says an Aldi will be built there.

Beale says he was working on the Pullman and 115th and Michigan projects simultaneously. "We were also marketing 115th Street, so a lot of them, if they said no to 115th Street, they're going to say no to [Pullman] because it's the same ward," he said. "This is just me, but if we're trying to market something and here's a piece of property that we say you can go into and you say no, I'm not going to turn around and re-approach you again for some other site."

Still, he said, it's possible the broker approached the retailers about both sites.

Beale says he thinks he has records of meeting union leaders, but "it's been a while." His office didn't respond to my request for copies.   

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