City's first Wal-Mart set to open on West Side

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Chicago's first Wal-Mart opens Wednesday, just two weeks after Mayor Daley vetoed the big-box ordinance. The store has hired hundreds of workers, many from the North Austin neighborhood where the store is located. But not everyone is happy about Wal-Mart moving in.

A big grand opening celebration is scheduled for Wednesday morning. Mayor Daley is among those expected to attend, and Wal-Mart CEO Eduardo Castro-Wright quietly toured the store Tuesday. He didn't speak to any media, but he did tour the store, which underscores the importance of this store to the company's plans.

The store was filled Tuesday night with employees putting the finishing touches on what the Wal-Mart company has put a lot of effort into. It is Wal-Mart's first of several planned stores in so-called jobs and opportunities zones. It will feature products, from food to clothing, specifically aimed at the ethnic mix of Chicago's West Side, mostly African-American and Hispanic. Rather than McDonald's, for instance, there is an Uncle Remus fried chicken inside.

This Wal-Mart was in the works long before the city council ever considered the controversial big-box ordinance that was overturned by the mayor. It would have forced the store to pay higher wages.

"I think people just want jobs. If you fill the jobs, the other things will come," said Charmaine Alfred, Uncle Remus Chicken.

"You tell me if it's right, instead of going to a store maybe that's been there and taken out of the community," said Ald. Emma Mitts, 37th Ward.

Mitts was in Wal-Mart's corner throughout the recent big-box debate. The world's largest retailer was in the center of that controversial issue and they are well aware of the scrutiny this store will face.

"This store will no doubt be the most effective tool in setting the record straight, showing that we're a good employer and a tremendous asset to the city of Chicago," said John Bisio, Wal-Mart.

The company claims 15,000 people applied for just over 400 jobs. Wal-Mart officials have hopes of other stores in the city.

The leader of the big-box living wage movement, however, has not given up hope and the issue, he says, is not dead.

"I'm not anti-big-box, I'm not anti-Wal-Mart. These stores bring a lot of amenities and conveniences to the city. But we want to make sure that these stores pay their employees a living wage and provide these employees with a modicum of benefits," said Ald. Joe Moore, 49th Ward.

Moore says he hopes to reintroduce the big-box ordinance perhaps next spring.

The store is scheduled to open Wednesday morning at 7 a.m.

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