Asking for respect from retailers

At the height of Washington Park’s glory days in ’50s, nearly 57,000 African Americans called the South Side neighborhood their home. But more than three-quarters of the population have left, and the businesses have gone with them. Without the selection of stores that his grandparents and parents had, Murray Johnson, 67, has to drive about 5 miles for his grocery shopping needs.

But, amid vacant lots and boarded up buildings, Johnson sees signs of change. The house across the street from his modest one-story house has a realtor’s sign from Sotheby’s International on the front gate. His block lies within the boundaries of a proposed tax-increment financing district that could be official before the end of the year. And the park he runs in is the site of the proposed 2016 Olympic stadium.

Stakeholders in Washington Park are confident that these changes can not only lure a major retailer there in the near future, but also be used as a source of leverage to make sure that the company will tend to the needs and interests of the neighborhood–”and not just its bottom line.

“We want to be able to sit at the table and say, –˜Hey listen, you’re developing this store, you have to put so much money into the community, and you have to hire so many people in the community,'” said Johnson, president of the Washington Park Neighborhood Association.

It’s necessary for any investor seeking to do business in the area to have a “thoughtful and sophisticated discussion of community benefits,” said Brandon Johnson, executive director of the Washington Park Consortium, which worked with residents to create a “quality of life” plan this year that included a vision for retail.

Residents need stores that offer local hiring and training programs, as well as quality services, Johnson said. “We can’t allow people’s investment when they’re blind to the greater context of circumstances in the community,” he said.

But others in the community question if Washington Park is in a position to demand anything from a potential retailer.

“At this point, I don’t think so,” said Edminyon Toms, 71, who has raised her children, had a career, and retired while living on Lafayette Street, less than seven blocks from the park. “There’s no money coming in. I see a lot of fellows who are out of jobs,” she said.

The unemployment rate was 18.4 percent in 2008, compared to a 7 percent average for the city, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security.

“Some people will complain about making minimum wage,” Toms said. “But a job is a job–”you have to start somewhere.”

 

For Toms, driving to a full-service grocery store is an ordeal. To get to the Jewel-Osco on 60th Street and Western Avenue means cutting over the Dan Ryan Expressway, passing through swaths of Englewood and West Englewood.

She looks out her window of her house each day and sees the lot that runs clear to the other side of the street. It has stood vacant for the past 25 years. The blight has affected her so much that she has thought about moving, she said.

The concept of “community benefits” isn’t new. Many private agreements between retailers and residents have been negotiated in urban areas targeted for revitalization, said Virginia Parks, a University of Chicago professor who is co-authoring a book about community benefit agreements. “There’s no reason why [the residents’] voice should be any less in city politics,” she said.

In Chicago, the 37th Ward Pastors’ Alliance, a coalition of church leaders, facilitated negotiations with Wal-Mart in 2003, when the big-box retailer was determined to build the city’s first store in Austin.

Wal-Mart did consent to some demands, in a written agreement, said Joseph Kyles, president and CEO of the alliance. It hired the company owned by Margaret Garner, an African American, to build the store, under the urging of community groups, Kyles said. The company, Broadway Consolidated, in turn, held weekly meetings with a group of stakeholders and considered hiring of ex-offenders on an individual basis.

Kyles said Wal-Mart also hired a large percentage of its service workers within a certain radius of the neighborhood and allowed a local fried chicken restaurant to operate inside its premises.

For Austin, the leverage came from the fact that the company wanted to come in and be accepted, Kyles said.

In the case of Washington Park, retailers can look to a potential housing market bolstered by the proposed Olympic stadium and TIF dollars.

The location is enviable to commuters, just eight miles south of downtown and two miles west of Lake Michigan. Although the neighborhood has been hit hard by foreclosures, more buyers purchased homes last year than any single year between 1993 and 2003, according to the Chicago Association of Realtors.

The Rev. Richard L. Tolliver, president and CEO of St. Edmund’s Redevelopment Corporation, the largest developer of affordable housing in Washington Park, said the effect of the Olympic would be temporary, but it is a symbol that sends investor confidence.

Alderman Willie B. Cochran, whose ward includes Washington Park, Woodlawn and part of Englewood, said he is “earmarking” vacant land off the Chicago Skyway at State and 63rd streets for retail development. Mostly city-owned property, the site is large enough to accommodate a big-box.

It is also within the proposed TIF district–”west of the park, between 55th and 63rd streets–”that could provide incentives to retailers, such as tax breaks and help in defraying costs for developing the site.

Cochran said retailers receiving long-term benefits should give back to the community. “I think it’s important to ask companies who have resources to go that extra mile to help improve the missions in people’s lives,” he said.

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