PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday February 20th, 2013, 10:26am

Galewood Community Takes Ald. Graham To Task Over Proposal For Area's Fifth Pawn Shop

It may have been bitter cold outside, but the tension was boiling last night at a Galewood community meeting over plans for a fifth pawn shop along a half-mile stretch of North Avenue near the Oak Park border. Progress Illinois was there and has more on the community debate over the controversial shop.

It may have been bitter cold outside, but the tension was boiling last night at a Galewood community meeting over plans for a fifth pawn shop along a half-mile stretch of North Avenue near the Oak Park border.

Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) called the meeting at the Galewood Community Church in response to strong community opposition of the proposed EZ Pawn store to be located just west of Narragansett Avenue.

“We’ve got four pawn shops already,” Donald Glover, the Galewood CAPS community liaison for police beat 2513, said at the meeting. “We don’t need a fifth one.”

In January, Chicago’s Zoning Board of Appeals voted 3-1 to approve the EZ Pawn store to fill a vacant storefront in a strip mall next to Austin Bank of Chicago, 6400 W. North Ave.

EZ Pawn is set to be the fifth pawn shop clustered along North Avenue near Ridgeland and Hayes Avenues.

The future EZ Pawn shop is technically located in Ald. Nicholas Sposato’s 36th Ward, but it will be in Graham’s territory once the new ward map, which was approved last year, takes full effect in 2015. Ald. Danny Solis, who heads the city's zoning committee announced last month that he was to start enforcing the new map.

Residents, who say another pawn shop will cause adverse community impacts such as crime, often interrupted Graham and representatives from EZ Pawn and ABC Bank during the meeting.

Glover said Sposato, who’s held multiple meetings about the store, stood with the community members, but Graham’s meeting “comes too late.”

About 600 Galewood and Oak Park residents have already signed a petition against EZ Pawn, community members said.

Galewood resident Eric Runyan shouted at Graham, “Why didn’t you have these meetings before?”

Some Chicago West Side and Oak Park residents accused Graham of going behind their backs when she wrote a letter of support to the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals in July for a special permit for the proposed store.

Read the July 26 letter from Graham here.

“She talked to no one,” Joe Graber, a 33-year Oak Park resident and co-founder of the North Avenue Neighborhood Association, said at the meeting. “The street looks like pawn shop alley.”

Graham said she did speak with Sposato several times and he was “completely aware” of her letter.

Graham said she’s not a fan of more pawn shops in the area, but she was persuaded to support EZ Pawn after ABC Bank approached her, saying it needed an anchor store, which has been vacant for five years.

Graham said the bank told her it would be hard for a small business to fill the large space or to pay for remodeling, and EZ Pawn, which was in communication with the bank, could be appropriate for the site.

“The bank don’t vote,” one attendee shouted. Graham responded, “I’m clear on that.”

Oak Park resident Judith Alexander asked Graham if she would make a commitment to the community and not approve another special zoning permit going forward without talking to the community first.

“Moving forward we will join together to bring the kind of businesses we’re looking for on North Avenue,” Graham said. “You have my commitment."

ABC Bank CEO Sam Scott said the bank has tried to rent out the space for years, and the vacancy has been a “financial drain.”

“Why would we rent this out to a pawn shop when knowing that perhaps there’s a stigma to it,” Scott asked the 200 person audience. “Well the question is easily answered. We didn’t think it was a problem. We still don’t think it’s a problem.”

He said the bank appreciates the residents’ concerns, but it doesn’t necessarily share them. 

“We don’t think (EZ Pawn) is going to be a problem,” Scott said, adding that the bank has “done the homework” and thought about it a lot.

The crowd interrupted Scott multiple times, asking, “Where do you live?”

“Would you want to live within two blocks of five pawn shops,” resident Alexander asked. “If not, think about it. That’s why we're upset.”

Multiple community members said they’re worried another pawn shop will increase theft and other crimes in the area.

Tim Adams, Midwest regional director for the publicly traded EZCorp, which owns EZ Pawn stores, said the corporation is “stringently regulated” and it will be a responsible business operator.

Adams provided attendees with a list of commitments the company promises to adhere to, including not selling firearms, keeping store video surveillance recordings for 90 days and not offering title loans or pay day loans, among other criteria.

Jamie Morales, an EZ Pawn area manager, said each item that’s sold to the store includes a ticket with a description of the item, and the seller must provide two forms of identification, including a state picture ID, driver’s license or Social Security card, among other documents.

To safeguard against accepting stolen items, EZ Pawn employees ask sellers specific information about where they purchased the item, if they have a copy of the receipt, and in the case of electronics and instruments, they ask sellers to demonstrate how to use it.

All information is entered into the store’s database, and it’s shareable with police departments across the nation, Morales added.

Graham said she’s putting in place a compliance committee to oversee the pawn shop.

“We’re balancing the needs of the bank and the concerns of the community,” Graham said.

She said the nine-member committee will be made up of representatives from the alderman's and State Sen. Don Harmon’s (D-Oak Park) offices, Oak Park Police Department, Chicago Police Department, North Avenue Business Association, Mont Clare-Elmwood Park Chamber of Commerce, Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and Oak Park Chamber of Commerce. The committee will also include one community member.

“I want to show you that the authorities who are familiar with those compliance issues will be there to make sure that the pawn shop operates in the way that they’re committing to operate,” Graham said.

But the committee came as a shock to Lee Owens, president of the North Avenue Business Association. 

“The North Avenue Business Association has not been approached about taking part in any such groups and meetings nor has NABA committed to taking part in such groups and meetings,” Owens said in a statement after the meeting. 



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