Store closures demand bold response

To the Editor:

When word spread that Treasure Island Foods would be closing all of its stores, including the one on 55th and Lake Park, many Hyde Park residents were shocked, confused, and grief-stricken, like suddenly learning of a close friend’s grave medical diagnosis. This might seem like an unusual reaction until you consider that people were mourning less the closure of their local grocery, and more the loss of a full-fledged neighborhood institution.

Whether by remaining committed to discounting groceries for broke University students, or providing meeting space in its basement for local neighborhood groups, Treasure Island repeatedly proved itself to be the consummate neighbor. When it became clear that the closure was inevitable, the community rallied to hold a career fair for the newly jobless employees; an inspiring act of collective concern.

The sympathetic response to Treasure Island stands in stark contrast to the one Target Corporation has received for announcing two closures of its own in Morgan Park and Chatham. Those closures have been met with protests and calls for boycott by everyone from faith leaders and federal officials, to regular shoppers who pick up groceries a few times a week. What has struck people as particularly callous is the way Target has availed itself to public subsidies to build new stores in wealthy parts of the city, while simultaneously shuttering locations in working class areas.

These visceral public reactions show that people feel both Target and Treasure Island provided valuable, though perhaps not profitable services to the community. While these stores may have been struggling to break even, people believe that their neighborhoods are now considerably worse off than before these companies decided to hightail it to greener, more lucrative pastures.

While it may not be possible to reverse the particular situations in Morgan Park, Chatham, and Hyde Park, the key question the city ought to ask itself is, what should it do if this trend of essential retailers leaving working class neighborhoods continues?

Chicago should consider bold responses to this issue. With inclusionary zoning laws, many municipalities across the nation require that new residential developments reserve a portion of their apartments for households of modest means. Likewise, Chicago could consider a similar policy for retail. If Target wants public resources to subsidize development in a wealthy area, the city might first require that it agree to establish and maintain a minimal presence in a less affluent community. The presence may not even need to be very large. If the high-growth, high-profit grocers, Trader Joe’s and ALDI, are any indication, 15,000 square-foot stores, less than one third of the size and rent of the space that Treasure Island occupied, are more than enough to provide an adequate community grocery.

Another approach might be the way Virginia handles liquor sales: state owned stores. According to the latest annual report for these outlets, not only did they generate $171 million dollars of outright profit, when taxes are taken into account, they contributed nearly $450 million dollars of revenue to Virginia’s coffers. Those monies are used to fund substance abuse prevention and treatment. Chicago could consider a similar approach by establishing its own small-footprint grocery stores in underserved neighborhoods, and channeling the operating proceeds into public health initiatives or nutrition education.

Chicago can meet the challenge of retail divestment if it chooses, but it will not be easy. It will require an assertion that all communities are worth investing in, not solely those deemed worthy by distant executives for billion-dollar companies. Inclusionary zoning ordinances, the success of small-footprint grocers, and Virginia’s unique approach to alcohol sales provide broad insight into what the contours of a comprehensive program addressing this issue might look like. Big challenges demand bold responses; only time will tell if Chicago is up to the task.

 

Chad Courtney

Hyde Park resident