Tipping Point: The long-fought battle for a South Side Walmart - Dallas News | myFOXdfw.com

Tipping Point: The long-fought battle for a South Side Walmart

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

Music chart toppers like 'Lil Kim used to make a point to stop on Chicago's West Side years ago, mingling with their fans at George's Music Room -- one of several businesses where people in North Lawndale could shop and work.

"We had uh, the Red Rooster, big supermarket on the corner. Right where the Legion Hall is, that was a Men's Haberdashery. There was a furniture re-upholstery store," George Daniels explains.

There were even parking meters on a stretch of Roosevelt Road where today the street is wide open, most storefronts are closed tight, and there's not a job prospect in sight.

Miles away, in the Far South Side Roseland neighborhood, Alderman Anthony Beale still has a commercial strip - but it's been a challenge.

"The real money is leaving the community," says Beale. "It's going outside the community, it's going to the suburbs, because you know we didn't have the stores that were conducive to the working class people going to shop."

Beale says the stores needed competition and better options for his residents. They got both in a big box.

At the newest of nine Walmarts to open in Chicago since 2006, store manager Darryl Bowles sees nothing but opportunity.

"My favorite part was seeing my associates and how proud they were about opening up the store, and then seeing the excitements of the customers and how they love Walmart being in the community," Bowles tells FOX 32.

Walmart didn't always feel the love here. Unions - and other critics - fought to keep the retailer and its hundreds of non-union jobs out of Chicago. In 2006, the City Council even passed an ordinance to make big box stores like Walmart pay much higher minimum wages than their competitors.

It's the only thing Mayor Richard M. Daley ever had to veto, saying it couldn't be just about Walmart.

The veto gave aldermen political cover and there was the rising tide of jobless Chicagoans -- with Walmart willing to build in communities where the working poor had become just poor.

"A job is better. Everybody'd like to make more, or have better insurance, but you gotta take what you can get and I think it's a good start," Roseland resident Pastor Ernest Coker says.

"This created a lotta jobs for people in the community and that's what's most important," adds resident Ethel Gore.

"I'm a union supporter, but when you look at my community, and the unions were attempting to keep these jobs and these goods and services out of my community that don't have access to any of it, that was a fight that I had to take on," Ald. Beale explains.

Since the first store opened in the Austin neighborhood, Beale has been waiting 8 years for people in his Far South Side ward to get theirs.

"I made a plea to my colleagues in the City Council," he says. "Some of my colleagues have four and five grocery stores in their area. I didn't have any. So how are you gonna tell me that my community has the highest crime rate, we have the highest cancer rate, the highest diabetes rate, the highest unemployment rate, the highest foreclosure rate, but we're not entitled to a good paying job and good produce and things like that in my community?"

Good paying job? Some would argue that. Retail, especially discount or low-end retail, is considered a low-wage industry - along with hospitality.

That's part of Chicago's problem with the current economic recovery: the quantity of jobs versus the quality. Cities that are really getting healthier are gaining more mid-wage jobs.

Houston leads the pack with double-digit gains in the energy sector last year. They're the kinds of jobs that build the all-important middle class.

Compare that to Chicago, where most of the growth is in low wage industries and the number of "mid-wage" jobs has declined 7.6 percent since 2006.

But people like Anthony Harris are not studying those numbers. The father of two is counting on his work ethic to fatten his paycheck.

"You gotta do the work to get a bigger pay, cause everybody always wanna jump in and be the biggest fish in the water, but you do not start like that. You gotta learn before you walk," Harris says. "I was at the Walmart at 103rd & Harlem. That was my first starting gig though, and from there I transferred over to here, to come up to be a supervisor, cause I kinda played it pretty good at the other Walmart."

And Harris's pay did not start as low as it could have. Walmart opponents lost the war here, but won some key battles.

"We fought for Walmart to pay a higher wage than they're paying anywhere else in the country, and so we put a community benefits agreement in place," says Beale.

That agreement includes hiring more than half of the 400 employees from the neighborhood.

The community is obviously over the political arguments against the chain, but maybe the criticism helped change what's inside the boxes.

"Just look at this produce," Beale points out to FOX 32's Robin Robinson as they walk through the grocery section. "They haven't seen anything like this in this neighborhood in decades. You have plantains from Colombia, coconuts from the Dominican Republic. It shows a certain respect for the consumer that other chains have ignored. It has also opened the door for the first manufacturing company coming into the area, company called Method, based out of Europe. They're having their distribution center right here in the 9th Ward, and we broke ground on them last month and that's creating about 120 good-paying jobs, starting at $65,000 and up."

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