Six years ago, Ald. Joann Thompson (16th) traveled to the International Council of Shopping Centers convention in Las Vegas to urge retailers to take a chance on Chicago’s impoverished and crime-ridden Englewood community.
She came away empty and despondent.
“Everything was fine until they said, ‘Where are you from?’ I said, ‘Chicago.’ [And they said], ‘What neighborhood are you from?’ When I said Englewood, nobody wanted to be bothered with us,” Thompson recalled.
“It was such a sad day. Coming home and getting on that plane, I was crying out to God saying, “Lord, what am I gonna do?…What can I do to bring things to my ward?”
On Tuesday, Thompson’s despair was replaced by hope for a new beginning.
The alderman put on an off-white party dress fit for a wedding and joined Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a groundbreaking ceremony for a grand experiment: an 18,000 square foot Whole Foods store at 63rd and Halsted across the street from Kennedy-King College.
Emanuel joked about the relentless lobbying—including “nudging” e-mails and phone calls from the mayor and public investments all around the store–that convinced Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb to anchor the 13-acre project known as Englewood Square.
“This is more than a grocery store. It’s about keeping the resilience and the hope that the people of Englewood have had through thick and thin to make this type of investment and this opportunity happen,” Emanuel said.
“We don’t want Whole Foods to be an island in Englewood. We want it to be part of a strategy for the entire community…America is going to watch what’s happening. They’re going to see what we’re doing here in Englewood. They’re going to see the economic revitalization and the strategy of taking on and making sure that we meet the entire challenges of a neighborhood.”
Even with the mayor’s powers of persuasion, Robb said Englewood’s entrenched poverty and “crime statistics” gave him pause.
“That was certainly a factor to think about. Can we do this? Can we have it be safe for our customers and safe for our team members? My conclusion was, `Look, we’re not gonna completely eliminate the risk. But with the college here,’ ” it could succeed, the CEO said.
An even bigger question is how an upscale grocer derisively known as “Whole Paycheck” can convince Englewood residents that it can provide the products they want and need at prices they can afford.
Robb promised to continue “listening” to Englewood residents, but refused to say whether Whole Foods would lower its prices or alter its products.
“We will be accessible and we will be affordable for people. Otherwise, we’re not gonna succeed. We’d be stupid to show up here and not provide products at prices that people want. That would just be dumb. It would be dumb business,” he said.
“Do I know exactly how we’re gonna get there as I stand here right now today? No. But I have a lot of confidence that we’re gonna be able to do that. If you go up to Detroit where we opened a store a year ago, you can see that we’ve been able to accomplish that.”
Former Ald. Shirley Coleman (16th), Thompson’s vanquished predecessor, is not so sure.
She was the dark cloud hanging over Tuesday’s sunny groundbreaking.
“The mayor is thinking about what he wants, rather than what the community needs….People will walk in the door and walk right out when they see the prices,” Coleman said.
“To have a store that most of us can’t afford to shop in, I think it’s sad. I would rather have a partnership between a Wal-Mart and Whole Foods. Then, you’d have the best of both worlds. A collaboration like that might work.”
The project depends on an $11 million city subsidy for site preparation that will require an expiring tax-increment-financing district to be extended while money is “ported over” from a neighboring TIF.
When Emanuel announced nearly a year ago that Whole Foods was planning to open just outside a so-called “food desert,” the store had a targeted opening of 2015. The date has since been pushed back to 2016 because site preparation and environmental remediation—including removal of underground oil storage tanks and lead hot spots—is likely to take longer than expected.
“This is a very large property. What we’re trying to do is get the entire property ready for development… all at once. That takes a little longer than we had initially expected,” Planning and Development Commissioner Andy Mooney said Tuesday.
“You can’t just plop a store down. You’ve got to prepare the whole center. It just wouldn’t work from a marketing perspective—nor would it work from a construction perspective.”
Sonya Harper, whose Growing Home organic farm will be selling its produce to Whole Foods, is willing to wait for the day when shopping trips out of Englewood will no longer necessary.
“I can remember my grandmother saying, and I quote, `We have to go shopping in the white folks neighborhood because the food is better there,’ ” Harper recalled Tuesday.