Thursday, January 21, 2010

WestSide Wal-Mart Study is Flawed

I, too, got the email saying that Wal-Mart had caused the closure of businesses because of its presence in the Austin community. I also looked at the report that was prepared by the individuals from both Loyola University and UIC to back up that assertion. But after looking at all the facts, figures, dots and dashes, I concluded that I am neither a mathematician nor a statistician. But I am a “common-sense-tician” who must have been on another planet to have missed the devastation to my community that the report concluded. Especially since I pride myself on noticing situations and bringing them to the forefront before anyone else. So to hear that jobs were lost and businesses closed due to Wal-Mart’s presence right under my nose was unsettling.

Now I can’t do a fancy study like the one the report did. And truthfully, I’ve only been in the Wal-Mart twice since it opened. Once so that I could at least say when I spoke about the store that I had been in it and the second time when a friend needed a traveling toothbrush at the last minute. Otherwise, that particular store isn’t even on my shopping radar.

I have been paying attention in my own special way as to the effects that Wal-Mart was having on this community. When it was first announced that Wal-Mart was coming, both the Jewel on North Kostner and the Cub Foods in Washington Square bolted. They didn’t even bother to wait around to see what would happen. So it stands to reason that the smaller and at times pricier Walgreens with a tiny parking lot that requires the dexterity of a contortionist to get into should have closed down within a month of Wal-Mart’s opening. But it hasn’t.

And guess what? The old Jewel store has become the relocation site of Cook Brothers and a new Burlington Coat Factory moved in too. We have a new Menards and finally a replacement for the Aldi’s that we lost over a decade ago. There’s a new Chase bank branch and a Bank of America too. All of them within a stone’s throw from Wal-Mart.

And the old Cub Food site? Well after the community successfully boycotted the smelly Grand Mart store, they shuttered and went away (thank God) and we got Food 4 Less in its place. Marshall closed but then AJ Wright opened. Staples closed but America’s Kid came in. Now in my mind, that is all part of a normal cycle of store closings and openings.

But what isn’t normal to me is the report about Wal-Mart and how it was done. You see, those pesky researchers decided to base their decision on all businesses that closed within a four mile radius of the store. They looked at businesses carrying any merchandise similar to Wal-Mart. Their study area was Irving Park to the north, Roosevelt to the south, Harlem to the west and Western to the east. That areas encompasses part of or all of the following wards; 1st, 2nd, 24th, 26th - 29th, 30th, 31st, 33rd, 35th - 38th and 47th wards. That’s almost a third of the entire city that was affected by one store! HUH?

And there in lies the problem! You see in Chicago, each ward has around 40,000 voters. Add in the children, non-registered voters and everyone else and it is fair to say that there are about 100,000 people per ward. So how could one solitary Wal-Mart (and it ain’t even a Super Wal-Mart) be the cause of the failure of so many other businesses?

When the Wal-Mart first opened, it did cause traffic to be a mess. But that was more due to the city purposely not putting traffic lights in place and having those traffic aides out front to direct traffic. That was a cheap and cheesy ploy to get people to know that the store is located at 4650 W. North Ave since it sits behind the garages of the homes on North Keating Avenue. And that traffic nightmare continued for six months until Julian Alamillo was killed as he directed traffic. His death caused the city to hurry up and put in traffic lights. And ever since, things have moved smoothly.

Why is traffic such an important part as to why that report seems clueless? Well if all the people who would have shopped at those shuttered businesses in the compact geographical area were to now be shopping at Wal-Mart why that equates to about 1.5 million people or a portion thereof streaming into that store. Now I’m not the same kind of researcher as those who did this study, but I do think I would have kinda’ notice that many people streaming into Wal-Mart on any given day. And the traffic flow into and out of and around that store, even at Christmas time didn’t reflect that many people making their way to the store. Why traffic on North, Grand and Cicero Avenues should have been backed up for miles as people flock to Wal-Mart. But everyone knows that ain’t happening.

Also, since there are more people in a single ward in Chicago than in most suburbs, it seems ridiculous to use a four mile radius when a four blocks radius would have been better. People at Harlem and Irving Park don’t need to travel to Wal-Mart when the Harlem-Irving Plaza sits right in their mist. And I doubt that folks at Roosevelt and Western are trying to spend the gas money and time to get to Wal-Mart when other stores are minutes away. And the folks at Western and Irving? Why they are in such a traffic nightmare that they can’t even get to the Wal-Mart even if they tried.

Here’s my suggestion for the folks who did this report. Give the report to Ald. Howard Brookins of the 21st ward. He can then get the Wal-Mart store he wants in his community and watch while Evergreen Park’s stores which lie less than four miles away close down and the tax revenue is returned to the city.

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