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Whole Foods May Anchor Gay Center

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Retailer Whole Foods Market has signed a letter of intent with the Center on Halsted to become the facility's sole commercial tenant at the planned 100,000-plus-square-foot facility at 3620 N. Halsted.

Horizons Community Services, which is transitioning to become known as Center on Halsted, announced the deal last week. Whole Foods could take as much as 40,000 square feet on the first floor, leaving a space for the Center to have a reception area.

The company would also do buildout to create a lower-level parking facility for their own staff and clients. Center employees and clients would park nearby at a new lot to be constructed at LeMoyne School—that lot would also be available to the general public.

While the designs for the Center keep morphing with new commitments and ideas, this deal, if signed, would eliminate the possibility of any GLBT-owned commercial tenants. The second and third floors of the Center would be for Center on Halsted/Horizons programs, as well as smaller non-profits, and theatrical and recreational spaces.

Part of the long-term deal with the city for the property includes the development of additional retail space on Halsted. Whole Foods can do what most small or medium-sizes GLBT-owned businesses can not do—sign on now for a project that may take two years or more to complete; do the parking buildout; and sign a very long-term lease that will be attractive to banks who would finance the mortgage on the property.

Modesto 'Tico' Valle, acting executive director of the Center/Horizons, said while he does have some concerns that this blocks out gay-owned businesses, 'I believe hopefully the Center will draw from a diverse population, that this is something good for the community in the long run. I would have loved to have seen gay businesses. ... But we are about serving the clients and people of the community, and this will allow us to do that,' Valle said.

'Most people are excited—excited about the traffic it will bring, about the 200 jobs, and for the Center that it will be a stable anchor,' Valle said.

If Whole Foods confirms, the Center could break ground next spring. They are about half-way to their goal of raising more than $20 million for the project.

Amber Bicknase, who works in the Chicago regional office of Whole Foods as the metro marketing director, said Whole Foods is 'always looking for great sites where there is an interest in having us, but nothing has been finalized. There are numerous sites under consideration throughout the area.' This would be the company's 10th store here.

Morris Floyd, project director for the Center, said volunteers and attorneys have spearheaded this contract. While Floyd could not divulge the per-square-foot rent Whole Foods will pay, he and others said it is within market value for the area.

This agreement with a major national retailer to take what amounts to the majority of the first floor and a significant portion overall of the three-story project is unusual for a GLBT community center. In fact, Floyd could not think of another of the dozens of centers around the country which use this model. But Floyd said the redevelopment agreement with the city, under which the property was acquired, 'required us to have a significant retail presence in the Center. It is part of the city's interest in keeping retail vital and alive on Halsted. Finding one or more solid retail tenants has been in our plans all along. We identified a retail tenant that needs more space, but whose presence in the building will contribute significantly to making this project work.'

Whole Foods 'has a lot of advantages for the Center,' Floyd said. 'They will provide a cafe, which we wanted to have; there are potential cooperative relationships, jobs and interns for our youth program. And this will create property taxes paid by the retailer.'

'There was always scheduled to be retail on the bottom floor,' said Ald. Tom Tunney. 'In the original vision, there were smaller tenants. The effort was for either gay-friendly or gay-owned. My reaction is that Whole Foods is very supportive—they also provide for firm financial liquidity issues. They have the ability to make payments and the ability to build a garage. I am concerned about visibility for the Center—to make sure it is an important part of the building's facade, as big and visible as possible.'

'I'm excited about them coming in,' Tunney said. 'As an alderman for the entire community, I think it's going to help sell the project to the entire community. As we sell this fairly large building, that it's a community center for all communities—as welcoming to straights as gays.'

The Halsted merchants association is also supportive of the project, because it will bring added consumer traffic to the street.

One of the Center's steering committee members has suggested that the Whole Foods deal may also allow for further rent concessions—potentially below-market rents for not-for-profit GLBT organizations.

Whole Foods might also be assisting in expenses related to some of the other necessary design changes and buildout.

None of the following individuals returned Windy City Times' phone calls about the project: Patrick Sheahan, steering committee chairperson for the Center on Halsted; Robert Kohl, finance and operations co-chair for Center on Halsted; or Ron Bond of Bond Capitol Limited, a for-profit company which is developing the Whole Foods store.

Whole Foods History

So what kind of company is Whole Foods? It has a reputation as progressive, especially because it is the world's largest retailer of natural and organic foods. They rank 57th on the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index.

The gay or AIDS organizations they have been most visibly connected with is Open Hand. When the Ashland Avenue Whole Foods opened several years ago, their grand opening benefitted Open Hand, which delivers meals and provides groceries to people with HIV/AIDS. Open Hand merged last year with two suburban groups with similar missions, and is now Vital Bridges. Both of those agencies, Community Response and HIVCO, had also received donations from the company.

'On a consistent basis, they have provided product for our annual croquet tournament, including desserts and water,' said Vital Bridges Executive Director Debbie Hinde.

John Buckley, formerly of HIVCO and now development director of Vital Bridges, said last year the River Forest Whole Foods did an event for the agency.

Amber Bicknase of Whole Foods provided responses to 10 questions e-mailed to her by Windy City Times:

1 ) Does the company have a written non-discrimination policy covering sexual orientation? 'Yes.'

2 ) Does the company have a written non-discrimination policy covering gender identity and/or expression in its employee handbook or manual? 'While we don't specifically list 'transgender' as a protection, we cover pretty much everything in our EEO Diversity policy and offer an open, inclusive work environment that celebrates the individual regardless of gender or gender identity.'

3 ) Do you offer domestic-partner healthcare benefits for same-sex partners of Whole Foods employees? 'Yes.'

4 ) Are there any corporate-sanctioned gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered employee groups? 'Our team member base includes a large population of GLBT people. Because of the inclusive, welcoming work environment and progressive benefits we offer, there really isn't a formalized group that we're aware of. People do work together for community service initiatives such as Pride.'

5 ) Does internal diversity training at Whole Foods include training on GLBT issues? 'Due to the really diverse nature of our team member base and how well we all work together, currently, diversity is less a priority than may be necessary in some companies. Our harassment training, however, does include training on GLBT issues.'

6 ) For the Chicago region, what donations in the past 12 months have gone to gay or AIDS-related charities? 'Here are some examples of donations and sponsorships of gay and AIDS-related charities that we've done:

'a. Grocery-A-Go-Go Event on Sept. 13, 2002 at our River Forest store. The event benefited Open Hand/Community Response ... . The store hosted a 5% day ( 5% of net sales are donated to a non-profit ) in which the organization received over $2,800, plus all of the proceeds from the ticket sales for the evening event. ...

'b. Donations to a variety of gay and AIDS-related organizations which have included: AIDScare, the Chicago AIDS Marathon, About Face Youth Theatre, Open Hand, the Test Positive Aware Network, Proud to Run, BEHIV Red Ribbon Days in Evanston, Vital Bridges, and within the past couple of years our Lakeview store held a 5% day for AIDS Alternative Health Project [ now defunct ] .

'c. Sponsor of the Second City Tennis Classic in 2003 ( part of the gay Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association ) .

'd. Whole Foods Market in Madison sponsored the ACT I ( AIDS Network Cycles Together ) , a 6-day fundraising bicycle ride.'

7 ) Whole Foods has a generous program allowing employees to contribute time to non-profits. What gay or AIDS groups are sanctioned? ' [ We ] have developed a Community Service Hours program where we pay team members to work in the community. Any IRS-designated 501 ( c ) organizations ( tax-deductible, non-profit organizations ) and non-profit schools are eligible for Community Service hour reimbursements. Any gay or AIDS-related organization that meets this requirement is 'approved.''

8 ) What resources have gone into marketing to the GLBT community in Chicago? 'In addition to the donations and sponsorships listed above, Whole Foods Market is active in communities that have a large gay population. Such events have included Northalsted Market Days and a health fair sponsored by the Halsted Street Multiplex. Additionally, this year we were a sponsor of Pride Fest and plan to participate in the Gay Pride Parade.'

9 ) If Whole Foods has a policy on use of outside vendors, does that policy include proactively seeking out vendors from the GLBT business community? 'In general, Whole Foods Market seeks out vendors who fit with our corporate mission and meet our strict quality standards.'

10 ) Do all of the above corporate policies cover the employees no matter what country or state they work in? 'Yes, throughout the U.S. and in Canada as well.'


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