Walmart in Chicago -- Margaret Garner's Saga

04/15/2011 11:59 am ET | Updated Jun 14, 2011
  • Hermene Hartman President, Hartman Publishing Group, Inc.; President, N'DIGO Foundation

The business of Margaret Garner, the first Black woman contractor to ever build a Wal-Mart store was recently "revealed" in detail by Crain's Chicago Business.

The story was an attack rather than an investigation. This is often the case as Crain's discusses the business of Black business. The most damaging statement is that they suggest Garner was a front.

Garner was the toast of the town as she was showcased by Wal-Mart in 2005 in national print ads and on the banquet circuit and while speaking to the general public about the good corporate citizenship and responsibility of Wal-Mart, as they ventured into urban America for new growth.

They made their case very well, stating there were food deserts and no retail outlets concentrated in African-American communities.

Unions, local politicians, other retailers and even some clergy resisted them. Mayor Richard Daley saw the economic reason for Wal-Mart. He played hardball. He rallied the African-American community for support and pointed to double business/wage standards in the city on the south side versus the suburbs. I admired his courage because he took a political chance with the unions. He made sense and I jumped on board with all fours.

I think bringing Wal-Mart to Chicago was one of the best moves Daley ever made. Wal-Mart came with their problems, but most of all, they came with solutions.

The entry of Wal-Mart represents the first massive rebuild in some of these selected communities since the riots after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death where land has been left vacant, dormant and simply idle with no business activity whatsoever for the past 40 years.

Wal-Mart created a perfect storm.

Margaret Garner brought business people together. She introduced me to the Wal-Mart representatives and I was early on convinced that Wal-Mart made sense for Chicago, particularly the African American community. Wal-Mart advertised in Black newspapers including N'DIGO. They have been supporters of community events, including ones I have produced. I became an advocate for Wal-Mart.

Their slogan, "Save Money. Live Better" could have had one more line: "Bring Jobs."

They brought jobs. They brought stores. They brought contracts. They brought economics and all of what that represents. Wal-Mart is a magnet. I engaged in a public rally for Wal-Mart with high-level meetings to local community citizens. They made sense, and most of all I saw Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, being held to a higher standard than other retailers. The hourly wage was contested. Margaret Garner was under a microscope and she knew it.

She was truly a role model by which the standard would be set. She was establishing the model for urban America and minority businesses. She was a Wal-Mart spokesperson and did an excellent job in hiring local unemployed neighborhood people. She even hired ex-offenders to work as laborers on the building of the West Side Store, in Austin, America's first urban Wal-Mart. The Community Male Empowerment Project Black laborers did 95 percent of the landscaping.

The Black business community watched closely. Many minority business people received Wal-Mart contracts from ad agencies, technology, vendors, professional services, financial services and others.

A Wal-Mart contract is significant. It went beyond Black history month. It went beyond a 15 percent or 20 percent share. Contracts were based on pure performance. I thought Wal-Mart would be a model company for the America of inclusion. A new Chicago was being crafted, and I was excited.

Most of the minority businesses that did business with Wal-Mart lost their contracts after the urban store was built and after the hype, people from Bentonville didn't necessarily get the good old Chicago way. Wal-Mart came and they faded away. They didn't always listen to those on the ground. Six years after the store was up and running successfully, Garner filed bankruptcy. The overruns and the urban environment didn't match the Wal-Mart magic formula.

Did Wal-Mart speak with forked tongue?

Did they not live up to the promise? The Crain's story suggests that the project was too big for Garner's firm.

The Wal-Mart Chicago initiative represents 36 stores with a focus on the south side of Chicago in the communities of Pullman, West Chatham, West Loop, Auburn/Gresham and West Englewood over the next five years.These are African American communities. Is Wal-Mart re-engineering the urban landscape? It means 10,000 jobs and 2,000 unionized construction jobs and will generate more than $500 million in sales and property taxes.

The Garner story is much bigger than her construction contract. She was the envy of many. The Black male contractors tried to figure how she was awarded the contract. The White contractors see the gold and will surely try to buy the black contractors and pose them as fronts. There is a lot of building in 36 stores.

The larger question is, how will Wal-Mart really do business in Chicago? Will Garner build other stores? What is the Wal-Mart business model for urban America? Will it represent advertising, professional services, technology, merchandising, and the like?

The Margaret Garner story is not the end. It really is the beginning.

How will Wal-Mart measure?