Head of Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives hopes Pullman Park development will pull in jobs, growth
On a mild winter afternoon on Chicago's Far South Side, David Doig toured the soon-to-be home of a Wal-Mart Supercenter, now an empty lot stretching the length of 2 1/2 football fields.

The lot is a small portion of a 180-acre site that has sat empty since theRyerson Inc.steel processor closed its coil pickling line in 2006. And it's where Doig, president of the nonprofit Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, hopes to spark a community revival and spur new kinds of job growth.

Doig pointed at a cluster of trees near the last standing Ryerson building , which he hopes to transform into a community center. That's where he saw a deer before construction scattered the wild creatures. Jokingly, he said he has instead used his binoculars to supervise workers from his office in the U.S. Bank building on the site's southeast corner.

"They hate me," Doig, 46, said with a chuckle.

Even those who have opposed Doig in his more controversial roles, including handling the Soldier Field renovation as head of the Chicago Park District under MayorRichard M. Daley in the early 2000s, describe him as a nice guy, but one who can get things done.

"(Doig) knows the city and knows it well," said Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th, who has worked with Doig on the Pullman Park project, which is in his ward.

If something was not getting done by the city, Doig would push to get things moving again.

"That's what I mean by aggressiveness: on top of stuff," Beale said. "If there is something slowing (the project) down, he would call the appropriate people so that it would not sit at somebody's desk."

Over the years, Doig earned the respect of the community. "There is no reason not to trust him when sitting at the table," Beale said.

His proposal to bring Wal-Mart, a retailer hated by unions, to Chicago's inner city drew another wave of civic upheaval. There were angry rallies inside City Hall and a debate over whether union jobs were more important than other neighborhood needs, such as the access to fresh produce that the Wal-Mart superstore would provide in one of the city's food deserts. His project, backed by Daley, was ultimately approved by aldermen in June 2010.

Key to that victory, Doig said, was securing community support from the beginning, a lesson he learned early in his career. He hosted and attended meetings and discussions about the project with various local organizations. People still disagree on some details, he said, but overall the neighborhood's priorities were reflected in the final plan.

This, he said, is where government often misses the boat.

"They start with a problem: 'Well, we need to fix this problem.' So they develop a program without really understanding what's really behind that, what's really the issue, and listening to people in the community," he said.

Wal-Mart is expected to buy the lot in Pullman Park for $7 million in the spring and start construction of the store, scheduled to open the spring of 2013. Meanwhile, Doig's construction crew will move to the lot north of the Wal-Mart, where he hopes to bring in a clothing store, a fitness center, a big-box home-improvement store and smaller retailers such as a shoe store.

Summer awakening

Doig's learning curve in community building began in North Lawndale, a West Side neighborhood struggling with crime and poverty, where he landed as part of Wheaton College's summer program to help underserved communities. His tasks as a university student were to mentor children at Lawndale Community Church's summer camp and help rehab a car dealership the church hoped to turn into a community center.

His experiences there were a rude awakening about inequality in urban America. Growing up in Clarendon Hills, an upper-middle-class west suburb, he "never had to worry about where I was going to play." In contrast, Lawndale sits in the shadows of Chicago, he said, where "you can see the Sears Tower, you can see all of downtown, and it's like a completely different world. We were working with kids that had never been downtown, they'd never been to the lakefront, they'd never been to Lincoln Park Zoo, they'd never been to Grant Park."

His first night there, about 1 a.m., he woke up to a loud crash: A car had plowed into the front doors of the church. Doig ran to the car, which was riddled with bullet holes, and saw a man slumped over the steering wheel. He called police. The man, who later died, was a suspected drug dealer, Doig said.

Later that night, as he and another student guarded the building, two church caretakers started stripping the car. Police returned to find Doig standing in front of it. "This Chicago cop jumps out and pulls a gun right on my face and yells, 'Freeze!'" Doig said. He sheepishly explained that he was a student.