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Among the 49 aldermen who voted in favor of Mayor Daley’s hard-times 2009 budget were a couple dozen who delivered impassioned and often defensive speeches explaining their support. And within this group were a few aldermen who also used the occasion to share a few thoughts about pet issues, from problems with education funding (Sixth Ward alderman Freddrenna Lyle) to the perils of abandoned homes (33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell) to the necessity of firefighters (29th Ward alderman Ike Carothers). But no one made a more vehement, controversial, or interesting appeal than Howard Brookins Jr. did when he stood up and renewed his years-long call for help in bringing a Wal-Mart to the 21st Ward [PDF].
“Out of all the retail stores, all of their profits are down except for Wal-Mart, whose third-quarter profits are up 10 percent,” Brookins said. He noted that Wal-Mart stores are thriving in suburbs that border on Chicago and cited studies estimating that tens of millions of dollars in spending and potential tax revenues were “leaking” out of the city. “Six hundred people could be employed right there in my community. Six hundred people!” he said. “As the economic times get worse, we will continue to see an increase in crime, and it’s already happened in a lot of our wards—we’ve seen an increase in garage burglaries; we’ve seen an increase in stick-ups and robberies. Until that trend turns around it’s unfortunate that we’re going to have to brace for the worst. But we can stop or prevent a little bit of that leakage.
“Had that Wal-Mart passed in our ward the city would have had an additional $21 million, by my estimate, by today’s date. Sixty-four million dollars would be spent with union tradesmen–plumbers, pipe-fitters, electricians, carpenters, right now, when the city of Chicago is experiencing a 29 percent decrease in commercial building starts.
“There’s been an unprecedented spirit of cooperation with the unions and the city to come up with new ideas so we would not have to lay off a bunch of city workers. I implore you to come up with that same creative idea, with labor and Wal-Mart, so that we can put people to work. Unfortunately this train is not going to turn around anytime soon, and the only sure bet I know in the 21st Ward to employ 600 people immediately is that retail store who still wants to come to the 21st Ward in the city of Chicago.”
The reaction to his remarks was minimal—except for Mell, who followed up with an appeal for a casino, and powerful finance committee chairman Ed Burke, who said Wal-Mart workers should be able to organize, no other aldermen responded on the floor. In an interview later, Brookins said a few others approached him afterward and complimented him. He’s now thinking about talking with the potential developers of the project and, if they’re on board, introducing a new request for approval in the council.
“I’ve been quietly talking to my colleagues about it, and in this economic climate I think the votes are there,” he said. “Even if they’re not there, I may put it forward and let people know who’s against jobs. I mean, when we were fat and happy, that was one thing. But now?”
Still, Brookins said, he first wants to work with organized labor to try to work out solutions. “Maybe we can come up with a compromise,” he said.