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Alderman trying to find replacement for last unclaimed Dominick's

A South Side alderman said Friday she is “not discouraged ”— even though her ward includes Chicago’s only shuttered Dominick’s not to find a replacement grocer.

One day after the parent company of Jewel-Osco announced plans to buy and remodel five more Dominick’s, including stores in Rogers Park and near Cabrini-Green, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) tried to explain to her constituents why the shuttered South Shore Dominick’s at 71st and Jeffrey Boulevard stands alone unclaimed by another food store chain.

Hairston said she has spent the last three months working “non-stop to bring a full-service grocery store” to Jeffrey Plaza and has talked to “a number” of chains at the local and national levels.

But Hairston said the search is complicated by four major factors: the “amount of work and investment it will take to upgrade” the shuttered store; surrounding competition; community demographics and the store’s profitability.

“I believe all of these considerations are important. I also believe none of these considerations is a deterrent to attracting a full-service grocer [that’s] looking to expand in the Chicago market or enter the market,” the alderman said in a statement.

“As a shopper at the former Dominick’s, I know that store had a bustling business. I know how integral that location was to the community. I also know how important those jobs were to the workers — many of whom I’d come to know from being a regular shopper at that store.”

Hairston said although her ward may be home to the last Dominick’s in Chicago to find a replacement grocer, she is not discouraged.

“I assure 5th Ward residents that, while I’m working with the mayor and the city’s Grocery Store Task Force, I’m not relying on anyone else to find a grocer for this community. It is my top priority to bring a grocer to our community that residents deserve,” she was quoted as saying.

Safeway announced on Oct. 10 its plan to pull out of the Chicago area market, where it had 72 stores. At the time, Chicago itself had 15 Dominick’s stores.

The company’s retreat from the Chicago market had the potential to be a major setback for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s highly-publicized effort to eradicate the food deserts in inner-city neighborhoods with precious few healthy shopping choices.

Preventing that from happening was a major focus for the grocery task force that Emanuel formed in December, in addition to finding new operators for shuttered stores, protecting the jobs of Dominick’s employees and training those whose jobs cannot be saved.

During City Council budget hearings last fall, Hairston urged Planning and Development Commissioner Andy Mooney to play a more active role in luring new grocers to shuttered Dominick’s stores in inner-city neighborhoods.

“If the city says, `We’re going to sit on our hands and we’re not going to do anything and we’re going to wait to see who comes in, that’s not really helpful,” she said then.

“I hope you all will at least assist some of us in trying to get some quality business. Suppose a grocery store decides not to come into a Dominick’s and say another Dollar Store comes in. That’s after the fact. We need a department that advocates for us and does get involved and tries to get those businesses to come into the community.”

Mooney replied that the Emanuel administration had adopted a wait-and-see approach during the bidding process for new operators.

“We have tried not to intervene on the market discussions with them because, how should I put this, it could easily skew the kind of deals that they’re going to enter into with new operators,” Mooney said.

Mooney argued that the “writing was on the wall” for Dominick’s for the last few years.

“Anyone who was paying attention to this would know that they had already started pulling out of the city really two-to-three years ago and the new owner who came in a couple of years ago came in, from my perspective, really on a real estate play [more] than trying to do a grocery store play,” he said.

“The good news … is that, during that same period of time, other operators were coming into Chicago, particularly Mariano’s, Wal-Mart and one or two others, including some independents that are growing in the city. Over the last couple of years, we’ve had 22 grocery stores open up and two more are being planned. So while on the face of it the Dominick’s announcement seems very hard, from a market perspective, we have other operators that are very active and aggressive in the market and will likely make bids for Dominick’s locations.”

The laissez-faire attitude did not sit well with Hairston, particularly as it impacts, what she called the “whole new world south of 57th Street” where Chicago’s greatest “challenges” lie.

“The department decided not to get involved. I don’t really understand that. How can a Department of Planning and Development not get involved in planning and developing communities,” Hairston said.

“Some of my colleagues that already know Mariano’s is purchasing their properties, that’s good. But, the rest of us that are in communities where we don’t know what’s going to happen. I was able to pick up the phone and find out who the brokers were. I was able to reach out to them directly. Isn’t that something you could assist us in doing?”