When Wal-Mart Comes Calling

Government leaders of an affluent Chicago suburb were forced to referee a nasty fight between its residents and a famous Big Box retailer. That battle is over but the store war may only be starting, a BGA Rescuing Illinois report reveals.

Throughout the past year, the serene Village of Northbrook found itself in an uncomfortable position: Smack in the middle of a spirited brawl between one of the world's biggest and most indomitable companies and a small but determined group of local activists.

At issue was a controversial plan by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to develop a superstore on a vacant parcel in Northbrook, about 25 miles from downtown Chicago. Wal-Mart's Northbrook incursion generated a public anger and intensity that had rarely, if ever, been experienced in that north suburban community.

"This by far eclipses anything we have seen during my time here," said Tom Poupard, a 23-year employee of the village who serves as director of development and planning services.

Ultimately, Wal-Mart backed away but that may be a mere tactical retreat since it's still very interested in doing business on the North Shore. Should the chain return, Northbrook's experience will serve as a case study on how a municipality is forced to react when a controversial commercial player, like Wal-Mart, comes to town and irate residents mobilize in opposition.

What's more, the Northbrook experience also serves as a primer on why municipalities are being pushed to be more sensitive and transparent to public scrutiny.

Northbrook officials first took up the proposal by Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart nearly a year ago.

The big-box discount retailer selected Northbrook for a 151,000-square-foot store on an 18-acre parcel at 1000 Skokie Boulevard. The proposed Walmart Supercenter would have required a rezoning of the property from office to retail use.

The Wal-Mart store would be a first for Northbrook, a suburb devoid of big-box retail chains, although Costco, which once targeted the same Northbrook site as Wal-Mart, and Target have stores just outside the village limits in nearby Glenview.

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costco near northbrook withicon

Wal-Mart operates a store south of the North Shore, on the border of Niles and Skokie along a corridor of industrial, commercial and retail development that's unlike the undeveloped plot targeted in Northbrook.

At issue throughout the proceedings in Northbrook was whether Wal-Mart's proposal fit with the comprehensive plan that the village adopted in late 2010, which calls for mixed-use development on the property including retail, residential and office space.

"We want a mix of uses so that there'd be less impact on traffic," Poupard said. "At the end of the day, it was kind of nice to see that the plan was relevant and a good guide for decision making."

A variety of factors led to the strong public backlash against the Wal-Mart proposal. By itself, the concept of a Wal-Mart store in the community was enough to spark the explosive opposition, Poupard said.

"You have a good-size community group in that area that is very well organized," he said. "Then there's the general topic of Wal-Mart. There are some people so opposed to Wal-Mart as a corporate entity it seems like you are proposing the clubbing of baby seals. There's this perception that if Wal-Mart comes into a community it taints everybody. This was a lightning rod."

Opponents of this proposal quickly organized.

Susan Jacobs, who has lived in the same house in Northbrook for 30 years near the proposed Wal-Mart site, vehemently opposed the project and along with neighborhood community groups began to mobilize against the retailing giant.

Although convinced that no big-box retail development would be appropriate for the site, Jacobs was also unhappy with Wal-Mart's business practices and paying what she contends are "poverty-level wages" to its employees.

(Wal-Mart disputes such claims, saying its average wage in Illinois is $13.16 per hour vs. a minimum wage of $8.25.)

To get the anti Wal-Mart message out, the opponents turned to Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets while others went low-tech by placing "No Wal-Mart" yards signs throughout Northbrook.

Several homeowner associations banded together to fight the retail giant while opposition forces lined up legal representation to argue against the development.

Mark Anderson, a Northbrook attorney hired to represent several homeowners associations that account for about 2,500 homes in the village, said Wal-Mart erred in its site selection.

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Public hearing information, including how to donate to the legal fun / Northbrook Against Walmart Facebook

"It’s not on a major arterial road," said Anderson, an attorney at O’Halloran Kosoff Geitner & Cook LLC, who four years ago dueled with Wal-Mart over the expansion and remodeling of its St. Charles store.

Indeed, many residents expressed concern about traffic and the project's potential effect on property values. Businesses in the area also protested, some because they feared Wal-Mart would force them to close, Anderson said.

Although the proposal generated a significant amount of pushback from the community, elected village officials and staff didn't immediately dismiss the idea, Poupard said.

In an informal "get to know you" process, Wal-Mart discussed its idea with village leaders. Although the project drew mixed reviews from trustees, traffic and other impact studies got underway.

The village hired an outside firm to conduct a traffic study. Wal-Mart also conducted a traffic study of its own, the results of which were presented to city officials.

Upon completion, the village sought public feedback.

Open hearings presented a challenge for the village, given the widespread concern and curiosity about the plan, Poupard said.

"That's where it got interesting, in trying to manage public involvement," he said.

Multiple public hearings were held, causing village plan commission meetings to be packed with people.

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Northbrook Village Hall / Facebook

Northbrook officials held the first hearing at Village Hall. Conference rooms showed a live feed of the proceedings for those in the overflow crowd that couldn't squeeze into the main meeting room. The proceedings also were streamed live on the village's website.

Feeling the pressure to accommodate the growing throngs of residents seeking to take part in the proceedings, village officials opted to hold subsequent hearings at Glenbrook North High School.

"When there's a strong desire to participate you run the risk of alienating the public," Poupard said in explaining the change of venue. "I feel pretty strongly that anybody that wanted to participate had the opportunity to do so."

In the face of heated opposition, Wal-Mart aggressively argued its case, claiming the Northbrook store would create 300 jobs, more than half of them full-time. Wal-Mart's average wage in Illinois is $13.16, according to the company.

The company also tried to win over the community by initially claiming that the project would generate sales and property tax revenue of more than $1 million for the village. It later upped the estimated figure to $2 million.

Opponents argued that the boost in tax revenue would be partially offset by increased costs for municipal services tied to the development.

When it became clear that it needed to alter its plans if it had any chance of approval, Wal-Mart acquiesced. It agreed to limit store hours from 6 a.m. to midnight, instead of 24 hours per day, and insisted that the store wouldn't carry firearms or ammunition.

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Not limiting itself to working the halls of power, Wal-Mart went on a campaign, using telephone-bank calls and mailings to drum up community support. It also launched a website that made its case for the project.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Erica Jones said the company's internal polling revealed that a majority of Northbrook residents supported the project.

"We identified over 3,000 households in support of the store," Jones said. Hundreds of letters in support were sent to the village as well, she added.

Jacobs, who was in the opposition camp, credits the village with being open in sharing information.

The company also tried to win over the community by initially claiming that the project would generate sales and property tax revenue of more than $1 million for the village. It later upped the estimated figure to $2 million.

However, Wal-Mart supporter Tony Riccardi Jr., who has lived in Northbrook for three decades, insists there was far greater support for the project than it seemed but residents who welcomed the development feared speaking at the meetings and blamed a flawed hearing process.

"I think the forum that the village used allowed intimidation to come into play," Riccardi said. "I was one of the first ones who spoke in favor of the development and it was a hostile environment. In a room full of vipers it can be intimidating."

Riccardi said he wishes procedures would have allowed for testimony to be taken from supporters at a separate time away from boisterous opponents of the plan.

He is convinced that a Wal-Mart store on the Northbrook site would have been a success.

"I don't think you would have found an empty parking space," he said.

Ultimately, Wal-Mart backed off.

After the village plan commission indicated that even more changes to the project would be necessary before it could possibly support the proposal, Wal-Mart withdrew.

The bottom line: It wasn't willing to reduce the size of the store in order to potentially win approval.

"It would have made the project too cost prohibitive to pursue. We chose to withdraw due to financial reasons, not due to the opposition," Jones said.

Yet since Wal-Mart withdrew, it can present the village with a similar or revised plan at any time, Poupard said.

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The big-box discount retailer selected Northbrook for a 151,000-square-foot store on an 18-acre parcel at 1000 Skokie Boulevard. / Google maps

Under village law, had Wal-Mart moved ahead with the proceeding, and the board voted it down, the company would have been forced to wait two years to reapply.

This is not the first time Wal-Mart has faced stubborn Chicago-area opposition to its expansionary efforts.

Wal-Mart's attempt to build in the city of Chicago over the past few years initially led to resistance from unions and political factions that viewed the developments as predatory to competing small businesses while adding little vitality to the surrounding neighborhoods economies.

Wal-Mart never went away.

It continued to lobby neighborhood leaders and politicians, whose attitude slowly softened. Wal-Mart is currently operating stores in the economically depressed Chicago neighborhoods of Austin, Pullman and Chatham and more are expected.

When asked if Wal-Mart is expected to revisit Northbrook in the near future, spokeswoman Jones responded: "We are very interested in the North Shore and we certainly hope to return to the area."

Image credit: MikeKalasnik (CC BY-SA 2)