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What does the future hold for Chicago's retail landscape?

When I first came aboard as president of MPC in the mid-‘90s, the state of retail development in metropolitan Chicago was dramatically different than it is today. Mayor Daley and Chicago leaders – having successfully headed off doomsday predictions made about our city in the '80s – were focused on revitalization of Chicago’s central business district, including new shopping destinations along the new-old State Street. Meanwhile, exurban growth continued to explode and with it, “Big Box” retail. Retail superstores such as Home Depot, Target, and Walmart opened stores across the region, offering consumers the ultimate in one-stop shopping – and transforming suburbs with large lot developments and seas of parking.

As communities worked hard to keep up with retail demand, MPC supported them through technical assistance and by publishing a guidebook to retail planning, Retail 1-2-3. In the past few years, the economic downturn pressed “pause” on many communities’ best-laid retail growth plans, not just in Chicagoland but across the country. But this week, some 30,000 retailers and developers from around the world are expected to descend on Las Vegas for the International Council of Shopping Center’s annual global retail real estate conference, RECon – a strong indication that as the economy picks up, the market is ready for new retail development.  

These days at MPC, we know first-hand that people are hungry for new places to shop and work. Last Saturday, more than 60 local residents and business owners from Bronzeville, on Chicago’s Mid-South Side – including Alds. Pat Dowell and Will Burns – sacrificed a lazy Saturday morning to join the Bronzeville Alliance and MPC in developing an action plan for improving retail along 43rd, 47th and 51st streets. The fact that organizers ran out of sign-in sheets is proof of how passionate people are about where they spend their money – and where some of them will earn their paycheck.

Now the retail landscape is shifting yet again: Retailers are keenly aware that this new economy means they may need to change how they do business. Newspapers’ business sections are filled with headlines about how these very same pioneers of the Big Box format – including Walmart and its top competitor Target – are shifting their focus to small-format stores in urban locations.

How this shift effects economic development in Chicago, its suburbs, and other regions is the topic of MPC’s 2011 Annual Luncheon, “What, Where and How? Rethinking the Retail Landscape,” on Monday, June 27, 2011, at noon, at the Hyatt Regency. However you feel about Walmart – and there is no shortage of strong opinions – at MPC, we want to understand the ramifications of this economic shift on the built environment, community development plans, and the regional economy. That’s why we’re pleased to feature Tom Mars, executive vice president and chief administrative officer, Walmart U.S., to be the keynote speaker at our luncheon, providing MPC and our network with insight into this evolving trend.

Why Walmart? Well, for starters, while Target, Best Buy and other major retailers have large footprints in metropolitan Chicago, Walmart’s recent announcement that it plans to open its first “Walmart Express” in its hometown of Bentonville, Ark., and its first in an urban location on Chicago’s South Side, is a clear indication that the company is blazing a new trail on retail trends right here in Chicago.

And importantly, we, like you, want answers to some tough questions. Tom has encouraged us to ask away, and we’re taking him up on that offer through a moderated discussion led by MPC Vice Chair Jesse Ruiz, partner at Drinker Biddle & Reath.

I hope you’ll take advantage of this rare opportunity to learn about the company’s plans for our city and region firsthand – and to support MPC making an impact on our vibrant region. The Annual Luncheon is our only fundraiser of the year, and a fantastic networking event that annually draws 1,000-plus people from Chicago’s business, nonprofit, and government sectors. Purchase a ticket online today or use our web site to find out how you can sponsor a table. See you on June 27th!

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The Connector is MPC's blog, written primarily by MPC staff members, with occasional guest posts from volunteers and partners. 

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For 80 years, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has made the Chicago region a better place to live and work by partnering with businesses, communities and governments to address the area’s toughest planning and development challenges. MPC works to solve today's urgent problems while consistently thinking ahead to prepare the region for the needs of tomorrow. Read more about our work »

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