Chicago’s first Forman Mills Clothing Factory Warehouse had its grand opening in Austin April 16.
The clothing store at 1450 N. Cicero is expected to create about 200 jobs for the neighborhood, according to Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), who spoke at last Saturday’s event. Other speakers included West Side officials, state Rep. La Shawn Ford (8th) and Cook County Commissioner Earlean Collins (1st).
Collins stressed that Forman Mills is not only creating community-based jobs but the store’s revenue will help promote future growth on the West Side.
“(This is) the only way we are going to lift ourselves out of the financial crisis that this country is experiencing,” she said.
Forman Mills founder and CEO Richard Forman said about half of the 200 jobs will be full-time with benefits, while the other 100 will be part-time. Forman maintained that most of those employees will come from the West Side, but the retailer could not provide an exact number.
“Jobs, service, revenue-those are the three things that I fight for,” Mitts added. “If we can get those three things, everything else doesn’t matter.”
The West Side store marks the New Jersey-based company’s 30th location in the United States. The clothing retailer sells discount designer fashion as well as authorized major league and collegiate sports apparel. Their new Chicago property – now painted with Forman Mills’ signature yellow and red colors- was once home to a Goldblatt’s department store.
“This was an old abandoned warehouse. We had it resurrected,” Forman said.
The building and the West Side neighborhood attracted Forman’s business because of the inexpensive rent, company officials said, which allows for lower priced goods, as well as the need for jobs in the community.
Rashetta Blue, a part-time Forman Mills employee, was busy at Saturday’s opening monitoring the washrooms, making sure patrons weren’t bringing merchandise in. The 19-year-old said she’s happy to work at the store. An Austin resident, Blue said she enjoys working with the other employees, and receiving a steady paycheck. But most of all, she likes working with the customers.
But some business experts are skeptical of the chain’s impact on communities like Austin.
Ron Baiman of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability said Forman Mills may not be the ideal retailer for the West Side neighborhood. Big-box retail developments like this one on the West Side don’t actually add jobs to the economy, Baiman, the center’s director of budget and policy analysis, argues.
That’s because they tend to crush smaller competition and worsen the economic picture of an area, he said, though it may be true that one ward can benefit by having a large retail development. This, Baiman added, would depend on whether Austin already has inadequate retail outlets-in other words, is it a “retail desert.”
“My sense of the Austin community…is that they have plenty of clothing stores,” he said, noting the Washington Square Mall at 4849 W. North, and the Marshalls Store at 4937 W. North Ave. “What Austin needs is a good grocery store with a union that supports middle-class jobs.”
“I doubt they’re going to get this from Wal-Mart or Forman Mills,” Baiman added. “Especially, if the city and Ald. Mitts don’t put up a fight and demand high-wage, high-road, responsible business development that shares profits and productivity gains with the community.”