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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 store, 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—he's reached out to other big-box firms and they’ve all turned him down. Beale has made it sound like he's in a mad dash to find a date for the high-school prom and all the pretty girls were already taken so he got stuck with Walmart.
But not everyone is buying his version of events—starting with the very retailers who supposedly spurned him.
Earlier this month Beale told the Chicago Plan Commission, which had to sign off on the project, that he originally wanted to avoid another Walmart showdown in the City Council. “Wal-Mart wasn’t our first choice,” Beale told the commission right 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 is part of it—an argument eagerly accepted by the Plan Commission as well as local editorial writers.
The area is, of course, named after industrialist George Pullman, a guy who was so hated by union workers that he was buried in the middle of the night in a cement-covered coffin in 1897. Under the redevelopment plan pitched by Beale, more than 800 homes, a community center, a hotel, and two big-box retail stores—including the city's second Walmart—would be built on the 180-acre site, which once housed a Ryerson steel facility. Beale said 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.
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,” Karen May, a spokeswoman for Jewel-Osco, wrote me in an e-mail.
Joseph Roth, a spokesman for Ikea, had a similar story. "We definitely have not been in talks with anyone in Chicago about opening a store," said Roth. "We don’t recall anything like that." Roth also said Ikea was not “pursuing another location in Chicago at this moment.”
Target spokesman Kyle Thompson said no one from that company had any records about Pullman. "We have no documents on anything about that project," he said.
Costo chairman Jeff Brotman said he'd have to double check but he doesn't remember anyone approaching his 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 it had been approached. “I don’t see why you wouldn’t believe him,” Redmond said.
David Doig heads the nonprofit Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, which is the project developer. He told me a broker for a firm called Mid-America Real Estate had contacted other brokers who work with the five retailers. The broker, Dick Spinell, provided reports on whom he contacted and what their response was, said Doig, once the general superintendent of the Chicago Park District. But Doig said he couldn't give me copies of those reports.
"Those are in-house documents," he said.
Spinell did not return several calls for comment.
Beale accused the retailers of 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 said he worked with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881 to try and hunt down an alternative to Walmart. Marina Faz-Huppert, the legislative and political director for the union, told me 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,” she said.
The alderman said he'd been working on both sites 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 developer approached the retailers about both sites.
Beale said he thought he had records of meeting union leaders, but "it's been awhile." His office didn't respond to my request to see copies of them.