With the turn of a couple shovels Tuesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb launched a socioeconomic experiment in one of Chicago’s most downtrodden neighborhoods.
The groundbreaking at 63rd and Halsted streets marks a $22 million bet on the notion that the high-end grocer’s presence in one of the city’s poorest and violent areas will ignite its renaissance.
“The sun is out, we’re going to break ground, and this is a testament to the resurgence of Englewood and the resilience of Englewood and the resilience of the people of Englewood,” said Emanuel, looking across a vacant lot riddled with cracked concrete and weeds. “This is a ground breaking ... but it’s about a breakthrough for Englewood.”
Key to the promised breakthrough will be whether people in Englewood will shop at a retailer that 16th Ward Ald. JoAnn Thompson acknowledged some refer to as “Whole Paycheck.”
Robb repeatedly assured those in attendance that the company would set up a model for its Englewood store to ensure its products are affordable.
“It’d be stupid to come here and not provide products at prices that people want. That’d just be dumb,” Robb said. “Talk is cheap, but we will be accessible and affordable for people. Otherwise, we’re not going to succeed.”
The $12 million store, Robb added, would be “one of the most meaningful things we’ve done as a company.”
A year ago, Whole Foods opened a store in the Midtown neighborhood of Detroit that serves as a focus of redevelopment there, but experts have said the grocer has never opened in a low-income neighborhood like Englewood.
The new store, slated to open in 2016, will be located in a ZIP code where population is declining and the median household income hovers below $20,000. Much of the area is considered a food desert, where residents lack access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Emanuel and Robb announced the Englewood store last September, a week after the Tribune reported that the mayor had fallen short on his food desert promises. At the time, none of the 11 food desert parcels he identified for stores had been built on, and only 10 of the 56 new or expanded food desert stores Emanuel announced two years earlier had opened.
The Englewood Whole Foods would be located on one of the 11 food desert parcels Emanuel pitched to grocery CEOs. Robb said he decided to build the store after a receiving a personal plea from Emanuel.
The city hopes the store will spur other development on the 13-acre parcel it has dubbed Englewood Square. To that end, the city will spend $10.7 million to prepare the site, including new roads and sewers.
Watching the proceedings from across the street after finishing a culinary class at Kennedy-King College, Karen Jones wasn’t sure the store would succeed.
“My concern is, I’ve heard Whole Foods is real expensive. Am I really going to be able to shop there?” said Jones, 41. “I’m worried about this opening, and then people coming in and sticking up and robbing the grocery store. Are they going to be able to stay? Will it work? It’s hard to tell.”
With his re-election campaign approaching and his support among African-American voters lagging, Emanuel sought to use the Whole Foods event to deliver a broader message to the community leaders and residents assembled. He ticked off a list of other improvements he’s delivered for the area: A renovated Red Line station, a new track facility at Lindblom High School, two new playgrounds and selling city-owned vacant lots to neighbors for $1.
The challenges Emanuel didn’t mention are what have some South Side residents wary of the Whole Foods project — and his leadership of the city.
Crime remains high. Through June 25, the Englewood district had more shootings — 83 — than any other in the city this year. That included 14 homicides in less than six months.
Emanuel’s handpicked school board also closed five schools in the Englewood area, as part of 49 that were closed primarily on the South and West sides last year as part of a push to close underenrolled schools.
After the event concluded, Wardell Alexander was across the street, talking on the phone to his sister at the Halsted Green Line stop as he waited 22 minutes for the next train to arrive.
“They just broke ground on a Whole Foods over here at 63rd and Halsted. That’s just the mayor acting like he’s trying to do something for Englewood,” Alexander told his sister. “It’s not going to open until 2016. You know how many people are going to get shot up in those two years? We need those jobs now.”
He then paused to listen to what his sister had to say about the planned store.
“Yeah, I know it’s high,” he said. “Their prices are real high. I doubt you’ll see me shopping there.”
When he got off the phone, Alexander said he and others who live in the neighborhood are fed up with the rampant crime, lack of jobs and school closings. He said building a new store brings hope, but he’ll remain skeptical until he sees it open with food that’s as affordable as Robb has promised.
“I still doubt it,” he said. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”