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Suburban strip mall has everything you need for the weekend

In the new Illinois economy, only the grocer seems out of place in Towne Square devoted to pot, gambling and liquor.

The Justice Towne Square strip mall near 8300 S. Roberts Road in Justice.
Mark Brown/Sun-Times

Every storefront is filled at the Justice Towne Square on Roberts Road, which in and of itself is enough to set it apart these days from other strip malls in the Chicago area.

But it’s how they are filled that caught my attention on a recent visit to this southwest suburb.

At the south end of the shopping center is a video gambling parlor, which is located next to a second video gambling parlor, which is located next to a third video gambling parlor, which is located next to a pawn shop, which is located next to a new marijuana store, which is located next to a liquor store, which is located next to a mom-and-pop grocery.

And that’s when it struck me.

I was looking at a microcosm of the new Illinois economy, the commercial sector, at least.

Gambling, pot, booze and a place to pawn your wife’s jewelry or your kid’s bike if you run out of cash for the aforementioned. All government-sanctioned and promoted as economic development.

Yes, that’s terribly judgmental of me. And I don’t want to be that wet blanket guy. I’m not threatening to leave Illinois. This is my home.

I support the legalization of recreational marijuana on grounds of personal freedom and ending its role in the criminal justice merry-go-round.

I’ve also given up being the holdout on gambling expansion. The people have spoken, or more accurately, quietly nodded their assent.

But doesn’t it strike you as things being a little out of whack when only the grocery store sticks out as being out of place at a local shopping center? It’s certainly not what most people would want for their own neighborhood.

The only thing missing from the array of services at the Justice Towne Square is a massage parlor, another business that seems to be making an Illinois comeback. Maybe Danny Solis was ahead of the curve.

“Wait for them to legalize prostitution,” said Justice Mayor Kris Wasowicz, sarcastically one-upping my own wisecrack but not meaning to be taken literally, I think.

By “them,” Wasowicz was referring to the Democrats who run the state and the “liberals” at the Sun-Times, myself included, who have backed them up.

Wasowicz, the rare Republican elected official in Cook County, may not brim with enthusiasm about the business lineup at the Justice Towne Square, but he blames the state for limiting the alternatives.

“I did not legalize the gambling. I did not legalize the marijuana. I’m just taking advantage. This state made that all legal. It would be irresponsible of me not to take advantage,” Wasowicz said.

“What am I gonna do? They’re cutting my portion of the sales taxes. They’re forcing me to raise real estate taxes,” he continued.

For a suburban mayor like Wasowicz, a fully-leased strip mall means a property owner that can pay the taxes that support government services. It means economic activity. Let somebody else argue about whether that’s true economic development.

“I’m a pragmatist. Who am I to judge? Who am I to say no?” Wasowicz said.

As a result, his town of 13,000 people has 23 licensed gaming establishments within its borders, by my count.

The Citgo station across the street where I pumped my gas has video slots. So does Granny’s Country Kitchen, Randi’s Deli and Café, and Jimmy’s Drive-In, all within a golf tee-shot of the Justice Towne Square.

Surprisingly, the three gambling parlors in the mall are competitors: Elsie’s Place, part of a Minnesota-based chain of so-called gaming cafes where the food is an afterthought; Duett Bar, which opened before video gambling was legalized; and the soon to open Blue Star Taqueria and Margarita Bar, which judging from its signage can’t decide whether it’s a gambling parlor with tacos or a taco joint with gambling.

The strip mall manager declined to speak with me.

On Friday morning, business was slow for the mall’s gambling purveyors, while a long line of customers waited outside in the cold for their turn inside the pot dispensary, Windy City Cannabis.

The guy who pulled into the parking lot next to me rolled down the window and knocked the ashes off his blunt before joining the line.

Ashley, the last person in line, said she expects to start working for the store next week.

“Having this line is great,” she said, meaning that the demand for legal pot means she will have a job. I don’t discount the importance of that.

Wasowicz, a Polish immigrant who has been mayor of Justice for 14 years, said the storefronts in the Justice Towne Square used to be perpetually empty.

“Now at least we have commerce,” he said.

In the new Illinois economy, we’re not supposed to judge.