CHICAGO – Promising to commit to the neighborhood, executives with the upscale grocery chain Whole Foods announced plans Wednesday to build a store in the heart of one of Chicago's most impoverished and crime-plagued areas.
However, Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb had almost no answers for how the company — known for its organic and expensive fare — would follow through with the promise to make the store more affordable, leaving residents and experts skeptical.
"It is a bit too pricey for this area," said 57-year-old retiree Patricia Jackson who's lived in Englewood for years. "I don't see it making it in this neighborhood."
Located roughly 10 miles south of downtown, Englewood is one of the city's roughest neighborhoods. It's part of a police district that saw a roughly 40 percent increase in homicides last year, boarded up homes are increasingly common as the neighborhood has lost population, and fresh food options are limited.
The dirt and weed lot where the store will go has been vacant for decades.
City officials touted the new store as a way to help reduce so-called food deserts, pockets of the city where residents don't have easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has put a spotlight on the concept with the help of first lady Michelle Obama, who grew up in the city, and a push from retailers including Walgreen Co.
The city is also providing an approximately $10 million subsidy for parts of the Whole Foods project. Development of the project — including priming the lot — will get the money in special taxing district funds.
The new 18,000-sqaure-foot location is set to open in 2016, not far from a discount grocery store and across from Kennedy-King College, which is part of a system of community colleges run by city officials. The store is expected to create about 100 jobs and partner with the college's culinary program.
"We're going to do it an inclusive manner, a respectful manner. The first step is to listen to what people in Englewood actually want," Robb said. "This is not a helicopter in ... This is a situation where we want to start to meet people and learn and listen."
Robb and other officials said a Whole Foods that opened in Detroit in June may serve as a blueprint. Suppliers there agreed to lower prices as a way to fill a void in the area — but the comparison may not be fully accurate.
Detroit's new store is located in the Midtown neighborhood, which is one of the most resurgent pockets of the city with people moving back in. It's also where Wayne State University and the Detroit Institute of Arts are located.
Officials with Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market Inc. didn't fully address the discrepancy Wednesday.
But the new store could be another way that Whole Foods is trying to stay competitive by appealing to a broader audience and shedding its "Whole Paycheck" image of being unaffordable. In particular, the company has expanded its selection of packaged store-brand products, many of which fall under the "365" label.
The store could have ability to make a dent in the problem if residents respond to having more options and the prices are right, said Mari Gallagher, who runs a research and consulting firm that has studied Chicago food deserts for years.
"It'll be an interesting experiment to see how that store does. Over the long run it could be the kind of project that could not only improve health," but also economic development in the area, she said.
Meanwhile, some residents of the Englewood are said they were eager for the new business.
Bettina Hall, 55, was wrapping up grocery shopping Wednesday at a nearby Aldi. The self-employed woman said she wouldn't rely on Whole Foods for all her groceries but her husband would like it.
"He's a vegetarian," she said. "They carry a lot of things he likes to buy."
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