Chicago Gets a Walmart, at Last

Lines snaked around the corner as scores of shoppers awaited the opening Wednesday of Wal-Mart's (WMT) first Chicago area store, a debut that capped a four-year struggle pitting unions and small business owners against politicians and activists with an eye on job creation.

"I love this store," said Julie Edwards, a self-professed "shopaholic" who was in line two hours before the store opened. "It's about time we get nice stores in this neighborhood."

While cheered by shoppers, Wal-Mart's entry into the Chicago market has been wrought with difficulties. Supporters have argued that the store would bring much-needed jobs to the city's economically depressed West Side. But opponents have protested Wal-Mart's refusal to allow its workers to form unions and said that its discount buying power would undercut local businesses, that its wages were too low and its benefits packages, lackluster.

The store's opening comes two weeks to the day after aldermen failed to override Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's veto of the city's so-called "big-box ordinance," arguing it would have jeopardized the city's ability to draw and keep large retailers.

The measure would have required large stores like Wal-Mart to pay workers at least $10 an hour — plus $3 in fringe benefits — by mid-2010. The rules would have applied only to companies with more than $1 billion in annual sales and stores of at least 90,000 square feet.

At the time, Wal-Mart officials cheered the measure's defeat, saying the aldermen who voted against it were supporting "valuable job opportunities and increased savings for the working families of Chicago."

More than 15,000 people applied for the 400 jobs at the new store, where an estimated 98 percent of workers live in the neighborhood, said store manager Ed Smith.

Smith said on Wednesday that the lowest paid person at the store makes $7.25 an hour, and only two workers make that.

Residents like Edwards echoed the sentiments of many Wal-Mart supporters who said a job that pays minimum wage is better than no job at all.

"I want to see them make $10 an hour, but if they can't, at least they can make something," Edwards said. "They're creating jobs for our community."

A 7 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony resembled something between a religious revival — with the crowd shouting "Amen!" — and a pep rally, with a performance by a high school marching band.

"We're going to be a model because we're working toward a vision," said Alderman Emma Mitts, referring to employment opportunities in the neighborhood.

After the doors opened, shoppers poured into the 142,000-square-foot store to shop for a variety of items, including cosmetics, music, music videos and food aimed toward black and Hispanic consumers.

For resident Donna Johnson, who used to travel to suburban Forest Park to shop at Wal-Mart, the West Side store represented unprecedented convenience.

"I think it'll make the neighborhood much, much better," she said. "People have to go so far out to shop. There's never been a store that has everything."