Chicago’s first Wal-Mart store, which opened in Austin in September 2006, celebrated its first year with a special ceremony Tuesday.
Gathering at the store, located on 4650 W. North Avenue, for the early morning celebrations were many dignitaries from the community, including Ald. Emma Mitts, who fought to have the city’s first Wal-Mart open in her 37th Ward.
Officials from Wal-Mart’s corporate and regional offices were also on hand. The Wal-Mart chain has more than 5,000 stores in the United States and throughout the world, but until last year, none were in Chicago.
“I’m here to tell you all that we at Wal-Mart couldn’t be more pleased with the results from this store,” said Todd Libbra, regional general manager for Wal-Mart, at Tuesday’s ceremony. “This store truly reflects the community, and we credit that to the partnerships we have developed with Ald. Mitts and other local elected officials, the 37th Ward Pastors Alliance, community leaders and residents.
“Let me make one thing clear to everybody out there,” Libbra added. “We as a company could not be more pleased with this store, in this location, in this community, and we are very, very proud of our 400-plus Wal-Mart associates that have been here taking care of our customers and taking care of our store.”
But before Tuesday’s anniversary, some in the Chicago media had reported that the Austin store was under-performing, according to sources close to the store, and that area businesses are displeased Wal-Mart’s program to help them survive.
But those at Tuesday’s ceremony focused on what they say are the store’s positives, such as providing much needed work for people in the community.
“I believe it’s been very successful, and the fact that we have sought-after jobs for the community,” said Rev. Dwight Gunn, a member of the Pastors Alliance. “Wal-Mart made various promises to us and the community, that they would do certain things to help economic development, and Wal-Mart has used this store as a model for other inter-city stores.”
Gunn added that while the store has maintained its employee level, other issues with the store needed adjustment, such as having better preparations for employees so that there is not a high turnover of workers.
“That’s an issue that we have to deal with in our community,” Gunn said. “We have to deal with [this] as far as job training and having people ’employee-ready.’ We’ve had that as an issue, but even through that, Wal-Mart has still persisted to make sure that people from this neighborhood have been hired and been given a chance.”
Gunn went on to say that many area employees have seen increases in their salaries and their hourly wages. Some employees have also moved up the ranks at the store within the last year into managerial positions, Gunn said.
The store has also been criticized by some patrons for not being fully-stock regularly, Gunn acknowledged.
He replied, “The store itself, in the beginning, had some issues as far as stocking because there was such an overwhelming response from the community that they have had to make adjustments as to how the store is stocked. But those are all good signs and that is a positive thing for the community.”
Store manager Ron Wilson expressed his expectations for the store and its success thus far.
“My expectation of course is to be successful in this community,” he said. “Since coming to the community, we’ve made great strides and we’ve had great progress in the store, and we look forward to being very successful.”
Tuesday’s celebration, which included a performance by Prosser Career Academy High School Marching Band, was capped off by a cake-cutting ceremony. Ald. Mitts did the honors, and afterward, talked about the store’s first year.
“What a difference a year make,” she said. “Let’s look at some of the results of Wal-Mart: an innovative local business initiative and commitment to the city of Chicago and the 37th Ward. Let’s be clear, Wal-Mart has proven to be a strong economic engine for the West Side of Chicago and the city overall – with the creation of some 443 jobs for West side residents since the North Avenue store opened a year ago. Jobs and economic opportunity – that’s what this about.”
Mitts shared a story about a young mother of three, who was seeking a job with Wal-Mart, and how Mitts put her in touch with store management to get the job.
“That’s what this about: trying to use resources to help somebody who wants help,” Mitts said. “That is why I keep working for improving economic opportunities for the 37th Ward because there are hundreds of stories like this.”
Camille Lilly, executive director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, also applauded Wal-Mart’s efforts to support local business.
Lilly said the Austin store has generated tax revenue of more than $5 million and sales revenue of more than $1.3 million in its first year.
“A year ago we cut the ribbon, opened the door, and each and every one of you were a part of an awesome vision for our community,” Lilly said. “Not only did it create partnerships, it created jobs, it created opportunity for economic growth, it created more business, [and] it created revenue.
Terry Dean contributed to this story.