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Work halted on grocery store in West Side food desert after threats

Empty constructisite Madiosn Western Tuesday September 25 2012 . |  John H. White~Sun-Times

Empty construction site at Madiosn and Western, Tuesday, September 25, 2012 . | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 27, 2012 6:22AM

The West Side is one of Chicago’s “food deserts,” so named because it lacks full-service grocery stores. Cheers went up from people in the neighborhood when the city sealed a deal two years ago to bring one to Madison and Western.

Pete’s Fresh Market, a South Side-based chain, got the authority to buy city-owned land at the southeast corner and build there. It was hung up in the city bureaucracy for a while, and work on the site, a half-mile from the United Center, finally started this month.

That’s when real trouble started. Two weeks ago, according to Pete’s attorney and other sources, a large group of people arrived at the construction site and threatened the crews. One person allegedly showed a gun.

The grocer’s lawyer, Endy Zemenides, said it was a clear shakedown. “What I would characterize as professional agitators stormed the site and made some very open threats to our construction crew,” he said.

Zemenides said it happened on consecutive days, the 12th and 13th, with about 40 involved the first time and close to 100 the next. He said they talked about jobs for blacks but, when given the chance to fill out applications, had no interest in that formality.

“Their proposition was, ‘Give us cash and we’ll go away,’ ” Zemenides said. He said the crews called police, but the “agitators” either were gone or didn’t act thuggish once officers arrived.

Zemenides said the visits followed repeated vandalism and theft at the property.

The incidents are troubling for the West Side, but so was the result. Pete’s, owned by James Dremonas, stopped the work. The contractor, Dunleavy Construction Inc., removed its equipment. Neighbors wondered if the project was a lost cause.

Zemenides said Dremonas will restart construction in a few days after having received commitments from an alderman and the Chicago police for stepped-up patrols. He also said a new private security firm has been hired, replacing one whose competence and loyalty are in doubt.

The site is part of the 2nd Ward of Ald. Robert Fioretti but will move to the 27th Ward of Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. with the city’s remap. Fioretti said the threats infuriated him and that he hosted a meeting Monday to make certain Pete’s is back on track.

Fioretti has championed the project and noted that Dremonas has committed to hiring local residents and to exceeding city standards for using minority- and women-owned firms on the construction. The project is expected to account for 200 construction jobs and another 200 permanent retail positions.

The $18 million store will span 55,000 square feet and include another 11,000 square feet for other retailers. Dremonas paid $1.1 million for the city land, a price well below appraisals, but did not seek other subsidies.

Those who descended on the site “are people not from the immediate community,” Fioretti said.

Burnett said he had a staff member on site for one of the incidents because Pete’s called and requested his help. While Burnett backs the development, he said he’s deferring to Fioretti on matters pertaining to the city.

Several people, including Burnett, identified a local activist as a ringleader of the group that confronted the construction crews. I’m not identifying him because I could not reach him for his side.

The activist and supporters “go and agitate people in the community about black jobs,” Burnett said. “They don’t care about black people getting jobs. They are nothing but extortionists.”

None of this would be happening if an entrepreneur didn’t want to invest in a part of town others ignore. Pete’s is a nine-store chain Dremonas built from a produce stand in the 1970s, breaking off chunks of a market once owned by Jewel and Dominick’s.

Does he regret venturing into the West Side? “That’s not a discussion we’ve had,” Zemenides said. “I’ll say this: He’s not happy about this kind of reception considering he’s making an eight-figure commitment to the neighborhood.”

Shakedowns, extortion or whatnot, that kind of pressure is applied to a lot of developers around here. Most cases don’t come to light; proposals either meekly get quashed or a deal is worked out. It’s like a street tax, which may be one reason why more business doesn’t get done in areas that need it the most.

David Roeder reports on real estate at 6:22 p.m. Thursdays on WBBM-AM (780) and WBBM-FM (105.9). The reports are repeated at 10:22 p.m. Thursday and 7:22 a.m. Sunday.

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