The Wal-Mart option | Bleader

The Wal-Mart option

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One morning last fall I sat in a car in a 220-acre lot off the Bishop Ford Expressway at 111th Street, watching, though billows of white and gray dust, a steel processing plant being torn down.

It was impossible not to feel like I was witnessing a small-scale version of the Rust Belt's industrial collapse of the last several decades. As a bulldozer went to work converting the last piece of the old Ryerson facility into rubble, my guide, Ninth Ward alderman Anthony Beale, talked about his hopes of returning the tract to productive use.

Even before the plant had ceased its final operations in 2006, much of the property around it had sat for years as little more than a contaminated industrial cemetery. Beale said he and the property's owner, Park National Bank, envisioned developing it into an upper-middle-class neighborhood featuring $300,000 to $500,000 homes, a new school and community center, and some kind of economic anchors, possibly light industry, though it was likely that a major retailer would be easier to recruit.

Even that was no lock—Beale had already flirted with IKEA, and of course in the past Wal-Mart had expressed interest. But no deals were ever clinched.

In the months since, the economy has eroded, and Wal-Mart, despite some troubles of its own, appears ready to capitalize. Despite the storm it kicked up in Chicago a few years ago, the company has recently been talking about wanting to open some more stores here, and Beale’s City Council colleague Howard Brookins Jr. said it's got its eyes on several parcels, including the Ryerson steel site in the Ninth Ward.

Brookins, of the 21st Ward, has been lobbying some aldermen and challenging others to support Wal-Mart's plans, saying it’s no time to oppose the jobs and tax revenues the stores would produce. Brookins says he just hasn’t been able to come up with any other way to use his own ward's biggest open space, which was once the site of another Ryerson steel facility. "All I’ve got is a Potbelly’s and the Lowe’s," he said, "and we need something else over there."

But Beale said he isn’t sold on the Wal-Mart solution just yet: "We’re looking at all the possibilities and inviting all interested parties to talk to us." Beale said he'd really been hoping to land the city’s first IKEA, but they pulled back as the economy went in the tank. He said Target and Lowe’s had also expressed interest. And of course Beale wasn’t ruling anything out with Wal-Mart, though he insisted that the company would have to meet several conditions.

"They’re going to have to prove to aldermen and the unions that they have seen the errors of their ways—not paying a decent wage or offering benefits to their employees and discriminating against women," he said. Beale’s recent conversations with company officials hadn’t touched on any of those issues, he said, but he was optimistic that it would be possible to reach agreements. "I’m a firm believer that there’s always common ground."

Wal-Mart clearly understands that it needs some good PR. On Monday, in fact, the company announced it was donating $75,000 to help poor families in Chicago.

But it's going to take more than that. Even though Mayor Daley once supported Wal-Mart’s plans to expand in Chicago, his administration reversed course last year while seeking peace with organized labor to improve the chances of the city’s Olympics bid. Since then "nothing’s changed," according to Molly Sullivan, spokeswoman for the Department of Community Development.

Beale, meanwhile, says he and Park National are moving ahead with their "due diligence" on the Ryerson site. Environmental cleanup should be under way by spring—there are contaminating underground storage tanks that need to be removed, and the bank is planning to file lawsuits against the original polluters to try to recover the money. To lure more commercial investment Beale says he’ll seek City Council approval to create a new tax increment financing district that connects with another one along Michigan Avenue a mile west.

In other words, it sounds like the steel plant will be replaced by a big-box store, with Wal-Mart the leading candidate. I asked Beale if he’d given up on the idea of recruiting any manufacturing or industry—what about all of these green jobs the president and other advocates say we can create?

Beale says he’s got hopes for some of those too—he and the bank have talked with a company that makes autoclaved aerated concrete, a material used in green building construction. But that’s no sure thing either, and the alderman emphasizes that he's determined to get something functional in that space.

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