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TODAY

Wednesday, November 13

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Airbags

Lockport is an attractive little canal town between Bolingbrook and Joliet, settled by traders and Irish canal builders in the middle part of the nineteenth century. In fact, Chicago's Archer Avenue, which starts up near Bridgeport, was built to transport that neighborhood's Irish (as well as the nearby Chinese) to their work along the canal -- it runs straight through from Bridgeport to Lockport without interruption. Illinois is short on true historical towns -- we're much too forward-looking for much real preservation -- but Lockport does the trick by Illinois standards. It has a main street thoroughfare with buildings that pre-date 1871 (novelty to most Chicagoans used to post-Fire edifices). The locks on the Illinois-Michigan Canal have a surprisingly interestingly history, and towns like Lockport are some of the few remaining in Chicagoland that retain their historical color.

Wal-Mart's plans to build a 147,000 square foot eventual supercenter in Lockport hit a roadblock when several of the town's eight aldermen decided to put conditions to Wal-Mart's opening their giant store there. The aldermen proposed several conditions to Wal-Mart's that would ensure some return to the community and economic safety nets in the long term. The conditions were simple and far sighted, but Wal-Mart is balking.

Because a Wal-Mart of such a size would necessarily be a strain on any town's infrastructure, Lockport has required $300,000 to pay for improvements, as well as $100,000 to be dispersed in a one-time payment to four nearby school districts that would benefit from tax revenue, but which would also certainly provide customers and cheap labor. One alderman, Greg Piazza (3rd), is also trying to request $1.5 million up front that could be rebated to the retailer in the future.

Most interesting is a "go-dark" clause, a retail industry term for large closings. Lockport wants a guarantee that if the Wal-Mart location doesn't succeed, or if they simply choose to close it (as they are wont to do), that the land would be turned over to the town for other uses. It is probably this provision that troubles Wal-Mart executives the most.

There are currently roughly 3,000 empty Wal-Marts across the country, shut down after successfully liquidating competition, allowing the Bentonville, Arkansas based company to open a bigger location between two formerly smaller ones. However, when Wal-Mart shuts a store down, they will often refuse to sell the building or the land it sits on, to keep other big-box retailers from usurping their centralized location and exploiting the infrastructural improvements towns often make for the retailing giant. Needless to say, this can often devastate a local economy and always scars it.

So what these Lockport city officials are doing is wise: they are looking out for their community before they allow a behemoth retailer to come in and wipe out competition and gnarl their cityscape with 147,000 square feet of retail.

But situations like this bring up heated arguments from many sides. Some see these towns as trying to extort a successful business; others see it as a community simply seeking a fair return. One of the main reasons municipal governments are so important in the American polity is that they are tied very closely to the heartbeat of their communities. Huge concerns like Wal-Mart (or certain types of industry, or whatever it may be) do bring benefits to a community, but they also exploit its resources for the benefit of its ownership -- in this case the Walton family, which is as far removed from Lockport, Illinois as can be imagined. Wal-Mart will bring a handful of low wage jobs and marginally cheaper goods. Lockport is giving up a part of its identity and allocating resources to helping maintain Wal-Mart's infrastructure needs. Wal-Mart should not be allowed to hold up any community they seek to infest simply because they offer jobs. What they can take away when they suddenly close, with their habit of holding the land hostage, is often much more devastating.

The little canal town of Lockport is being brave in demanding a fair return for the people of their community before Wal-Mart moves in. There are 3,000 empty Wal-Marts -- but there's only one Lockport, Illinois.

How embarrassing, then, for the big tough Aldermen of Chicago's City Council who barely raised a purr before curling up in Wal-Mart's lap. What a novelty: aldermen who do not wilt like hothouse flowers at the idea of a hard bargain. We would do well to ask Alds. Clements and Piazza to forward their proposals to Alds. Mitts (37th) and Brookins (21st) with a notice: This is why they elect you..

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About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon covers and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at .

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