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Whole Foods developer gets $10 million city subsidy

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Updated: October 7, 2013 12:42PM

With a $10 million city subsidy for site preparation and a three-year construction schedule, Whole Foods on Wednesday began the formidable task of convincing Englewood residents that the upscale grocer can serve their needs at affordable prices.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the proximity to Kennedy-King College and its Washburne Culinary Institute was critical to making the deal work for Whole Foods after several alternative sites fell through.

“You can’t tell a company, `Go do this.’ They have to see the economic opportunity, which they saw. . . . They study this. They’ve looked at this as a business model,” the mayor said during the official announcement of the store and the TIF dollars it will receive.

But, students interviewed Wednesday were skeptical about CEO Walter Robb’s pledge to offer affordable prices at the 18,000-square-foot store at 63rd and Halsted, scheduled to open in 2016. They shop at the Aldi discount grocery store at 620 W. 63rd.

“Aldi is convenient and their prices are not outrageous. Lower prices and a more welcoming environment,” said Kennedy-King student Lakeisha Smith.

“Whole Foods is an expensive store, so I don’t think I’ll be in there unless they lower the prices for the community. The atmosphere is just like, you get what you want and get out. It’s not really inviting.”

Culinary student Tavarius Ware was blown away to learn that the grocer known for its organic foods was coming to Englewood.

“You see them downtown. Maybe in the suburbs. But, to come to the inner city? That’s big. Plus, it’ll generate jobs,” he said.

But, Ware added, “They are an upscale food chain as opposed to Jewel or Aldi. I’m hoping it’ll be competitive — that people in the inner city will be able to afford the food.”

Robb promised to “learn and listen” to Englewood residents, serve “what the community wants, so long as it meets our quality standards” and offer “affordable” prices.

“I don’t yet know exactly how we’re gonna do that . . . But, we’ve had some experience in the last year in Detroit,” he said of the 21,000-square-foot store now exceeding expectations in Midtown, one of that bankrupt city’s more vibrant communities.

He added, “Aldi is a limited choice operator. They don’t have the full range of product, particularly on the fresh side. So, we end up complementing them. We do some things differently than they do. That’s the great thing about competition. If we don’t do a good job serving the community, then they won’t support the store.”

The average Whole Foods store is 40,000 square feet. The Englewood store will be a little less than half that size.

“For the number of people that are here and what we think the sales volume will be, it’s the right size for this community. And hey, if we’re doing better than we think, then we can always expand,” Robb said.

Emanuel has used a healthy mix of new and upgraded retail stores, produce carts, urban farms, farmer’s markets and donated CTA buses filled with fruits and vegetables to shrink Chicago’s food deserts.

For him, Wednesday news conference at Kennedy-King provided a rare chance to demonstrate progress in a campaign that’s been slower to show results than he would have liked.

“This is not unique to Chicago. It didn’t happen overnight. And it’s not gonna take overnight to quote-unquote dig out of it,” the mayor said.

“Slowly but surely, we are dealing with it — not by a store, not by a bus, not by one empty lot and not by one farmer’s market, but in a comprehensive approach….Have we cut the population from what I inherited that had been built up over 30 years? Absolutely. Do we want to go faster? I’m not happy until everybody has the opportunity” to buy fresh produce at affordable prices.


Twitter: @fspielman

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