In handling Wal-Mart, City Hall might profitably look to Chicago

From the sidewalk in front of his car audio and accessories shop in Chicago's west side, Francisco Soto can see the sign marking the city's first Wal-Mart less than a block away. A steady stream of cars and pedestrians moves along North Avenue-a street once flanked by struggling shops and services. "I've been in this neighbourhood all my life," says Soto. "A few years ago, the street was filled with needles and broken bottles. Now that Wal-Mart's here, there are new stores and foot traffic like I've never seen." Soto worried when he first heard Wal-Mart was moving into the area. Would it drain his business and bankrupt him? But two years after the opening, he says his business is thriving. He points to the new investment in the area; a CVS Pharmacy, a Menard's hardware store, a Bank of America branch, and several locally owned businesses have all opened recently. Emma Mitts, alderman for Chicago's Ward 37, has championed the Wal-Mart project since it was proposed in 2001. Citing her ward's many challenges, including an unemployment rate 17 times the national average and a dearth of shopping options that saw many of the area's poor residents travelling long distances for goods and services, Mitts is clear about Wal-Mart's impact: "I fought a long fight, and was blessed to get this approved in my ward." It's a far cry from the reception the controversial big-box retailer has received here. In 2005, Larry Campbell's council (responding to howls of protest from residents and COPE councillors) denied Wal-Mart's application to set up on Southeast Marine Drive. The recent approval of a Canadian Tire outlet on Southwest Marine means Wal-Mart will likely be bidding again. City Council would do well to consider how Chicago found a way to have retail projects give back to local neighbourhoods, as residential projects have long been required to do. Chicago's Wal-Mart generates foot and vehicle traffic that supports new and existing retailers; the store itself fills 80 percent of its jobs with local residents; and it was built by a local contractor. Mitts also points to the almost $200,000 in funding that Wal-Mart has provided to local job training programs, business associations, and youth activities. She makes a persuasive case for not allowing retailers to locate wherever they want to, but for encouraging them to locate in areas that need a boost. "This area needed new investment. It needed the services and jobs. Other parts of the city maybe didn't want those things, but we did. And it wasn't something that just happened. Somebody had to lead, to tell Wal-Mart what to do, to lay out a platform to let them work with the community. I'm telling you, it's a good thing to do." Clearly, a big-box store can play a positive role in a local area, not by adding a green roof but by finding a community that needs the very things Wal-Mart, or retail ‘anchors' like it, can bring under the right conditions: jobs, traffic, and a wide range of inexpensively priced consumer products. Which brings us-as so many issues do these days-to the Downtown Eastside. Why not persuade Wal-Mart to locate in or near the embattled area? And what more obvious spot than the International Village Shopping Centre, which has faced chronic vacancy problems since its construction in 1999, due in part to its inability to find an anchor tenant to complement the Cinemark Tinseltown theatre. Might a Wal-Mart invigorate the complex by introducing a major traffic generator to the area, while serving the more modest consumer needs of residents who live nearby? Absolutely, says Phillip Boname, president of Urbanics Consultants Ltd., who worked on the Woodward's redevelopment. "Anything the city can do to bring traffic generators into the area can only be positive. If a big-box were willing to locate there, it would do a lot to attract other retailers and get the ball rolling towards revitalization." Boname notes that big-box retailers earlier looked at locating east of downtown, but decided against doing so partly because of the availability of locations that were easier to develop. Ironically, it's precisely these "easier" locations that underlie many of the problems associated with big-box development-traffic, parking, impact on small retailers. Put a Wal-Mart downtown and there's little to distinguish it from any other department store, like The Bay. Rather than bemoaning what big-box stores will take away from an area, maybe we ought to be steering them toward more suitable locations. A low-income neighbourhood in Chicago found a way to make a Wal-Mart part of its revitalization. Why not here?