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Chicago approves its first Wal-Mart

The Chicago city council voted Wednesday to allow Wal-Mart to open its first store in the city after months of delay and intense lobbying by the company and its opponents.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. won City Council approval Wednesday to build its first store in Chicago after months of delay and intense lobbying by the chain's foes and supporters.

In a raucous debate, the council voted 32-15 to allow Wal-Mart to construct a 150,000-square-foot store in a poor, largely black and Hispanic neighborhood on the city's West Side.

In a second vote, the council rejected a huge store that Wal-Mart wanted to build in a racially diverse, largely middle-class South Side neighborhood. The vote was 25-21, just shy of the majority of the 50-member council needed to make the zoning change.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based discount retailer ran into fierce opposition from community leaders who claim Wal-Mart pays substandard salaries and fear it will hurt established businesses.

"We are dealing with a huge company with a long history of predatory practices," Alderman Helen Shiller argued during the meeting Wednesday, also accusing Wal-Mart of not providing its employees adequate health care.

"They count on the city to provide assistance to their workers," she said. "We are creating more loss than gains."

Alderman Emma Mitts countered that people in her West Side ward need the jobs that Wal-Mart can bring.

"Take a ride in my area and see what I am dealing with day in and day out. There's a lack of jobs and opportunity," she said.

The victory for Wal-Mart comes after an expensive defeat in April in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, where voters rejected a superstore.

Earlier this week, a preservation group put all of Vermont on its list of America's most endangered places, warning that Wal-Mart's big-box stores threaten the New England state's small-town charm.

Last month, Wal-Mart launched a lobbying campaign to overcome the opposition. The retailer used a telephone bank to connect people who said they supported the stores directly to several aldermen's ward offices.

The supporters were found by pollsters hired by Wal-Mart, who called hundreds of Chicago residents Monday and Tuesday. Anyone who said they supported the stores was patched through to one of 11 aldermen, according to Thom Serafin, a public relations consultant hired by the retailer. He said Wal-Mart found that 72 percent of those polled supported the company.

Wal-Mart promised the City Council to find minority subcontractors to help build its stores and to do its best to fill 75 to 80 percent of the 500 jobs in those stores with local residents.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union fought the plan Wednesday, giving the council testimonials from two Wal-Mart employees who alleged mistreatment by the company.

A call to Wal-Mart's headquarters seeking comment was not immediately returned.

The store would be Wal-Mart's first in Chicago. Company officials have said they have been looking at the city for a while, searching for space that would accommodate a store's size. It is part of the retailer's continuing strategy to penetrate urban markets. For decades, Wal-Mart has concentrated on suburban and rural communities that company officials deemed underserved.

The City Council's action leaves Detroit and New York as the only top-10 urban markets without a Wal-Mart store or approval for plans to build one.