As shoppers crowd stores across the country Friday searching for bargains, another crowd will gather in front of one Chicago store for a different reason.

They’ll converge on the Target store in Chatham, one of two South Side locations the Minneapolis-based retailer plans to close in February.

Residents say the loss of both the Chatham store and one in Morgan Park — Target’s southernmost city locations — will be devastating.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., has tried without success to persuade store executives to reverse their decision; both stores are in his district. Rush promises “busloads” of protesters will disrupt the Black Friday shopping experience and force Target to reconsider.

They say Target’s actions are unfair, given the chain’s rapid growth on the wealthier North Side.

Bringing Target to Chatham

Target’s Chicago-area expansion began in 1990 after the company acquired iconic Chicago retailer Marshall Field for $1.04 billion. By March 1993, 11 stores were operating in the suburbs. In 1994, Target opened its first city store, at 2656 N. Elston Ave.

Still, the company was avoiding some neighborhoods. In 1992, Target’s then-CEO, Kenneth Macke, said he would much rather make donations to poor communities than place a store in one, according to a Sun-Times report.

Still, by 1998, when a new strip mall at 87th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue needed a big-box store, the community wanted Target.

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“It made sense to bring in a major retailer,” said Eli Washington, chairman of the Chesterfield Community Council. So he sent the company a letter.

“The Chatham/Chesterfield communities and the surrounding areas are some of the most beautiful and stable communities in the Chicagoland area,” he wrote in his 1998 letter. “We have been informed … that your store is not interested in opening at that site … Please reconsider opening at this site.”

Target wrote back three weeks later: “… the site location and market profile did not meet our criteria during the first analysis.”

However, after years of negotiations and with support from then-Ald. Freddrenna Lyle and then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, Target changed its mind. The store opened in 2002.

Daley said then the store would bring sales tax dollars back into the city from the suburbs.

“Our neighborhoods have come back,” he said. “Residents have money to spend. They prefer to spend it close to home.”

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush and mayoral candidate Gery Chico

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush and mayoral candidate Gery Chico at a rally to keep two Target stores open on Chicago’s South Side. | Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

The case for closing

Out of 84 Chicago-area stores, 19 are in the city. On Feb. 2, that will drop to 17.

The Morgan Park and Chatham stores, closing after 17 years, are both in majority African-American communities — and will shut down right at the beginning of Black History Month.

“I took it personally when I heard they were leaving,” Washington said.

Target said the stores had under-performed for many years.

Rob Karr, president and CEO of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said the closing of some unprofitable locations is needed for a company to survive.

“Retail is a narrow-profit industry to start with,” Karr said. “Anything that happens that presses those margins even further calls into question the viability of a store. Whether it is property taxes, fees, additional regulations. All of which we have seen in Chicago and Cook County.”

As for waiting to close the stores after the holiday season, it’s the morally right thing for the company to do, he argued. The goal is to always keep employees working through the holiday and provide shopping options for residents.

“Would they then prefer to lose that option to shop during the holiday?” Karr said.

Also, announcing the closing so far in advance allows time to plan and move employees around. Each store has about 120 full and part-time workers, and those in “good standing” will be eligible to transfer.

Continued investment up North

Chicago’s City Council recently approved $13 million in assistance for the Edens Collection, a center at Foster and the Edens, which will have a number of retailers including a Target. They also plan to remodel 18 other stores, many in the city.

They also plan to open two others: in Rogers Park in 2019, and in Logan Square in 2020. Each neighborhood already has a Target store.

Washington called it an “insult” for Target to close two stores in African-American neighborhoods while opening still more stores in in North Side area it already serves.

“Target is an anchor to our community. It drives business to our community and with that being gone it’s going to leave a big void,” Washington said. “I’m concerned about the ripple effect … what other major retailer is going to want to come in if Target couldn’t make it?”

Politicians and community organizers fear the soon-empty Target site in Chatham will hurt the image of the rest of the shopping center. That’s what happened when after a Dominick’s grocery closed at nearby Jeffery Plaza in 2013.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) said Target’s departure means he and his constituents must begin to find alternatives.

“Target handled these closures horribly,” said Sawyer. If the stores were underperforming for years, “they should’ve come to us years ago so we could’ve tried to find a solution.”

Sawyer said he has met with Target executives about the future of their property. The retailer is trying to sell it, spokeswoman Jacqueline Debuse said.

Jahmal Cole, a Chatham resident, founded My Block, My Hood, My City, a group that works with at-risk youth. He said instead of trying to get Target to stay, the community should help the businesses still trying to make it.

“Chatham’s hopes aren’t tied to Target,” Cole said. “This is an opportunity for us to counter that disinvestment by shopping at real local businesses.”

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.