Minnesota retail giant Target came to East Liberty on Wednesday to hold its annual shareholders meeting at the new two-level Penn Avenue store that Pittsburgh community leaders hope will mark another step toward improving the neighborhood economy.
The discount retailer brought a little controversy along, too, even as management tried to keep the focus on Target initiatives that will be reflected in a slightly different store than those found in the Pittsburgh suburbs.
A protest outside before the meeting drew a crowd of about 100 people calling on the retailer to refrain from political spending, according to Marty Marks of the AFL-CIO.
Target came under fire last year for donating $150,000 to a political group that backed Minnesota Republican gubernatorial candidate and same-sex marriage rights opponent Tom Emmer. The donation came in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows companies to spend corporate money to influence elections.
"You are going to be susceptible to this type of controversy no matter what type of donation you make," said Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota. "The best approach is really to refrain from political spending."
Later, during the question-and-answer session of the shareholders meeting inside, about a dozen people lined up -- many of them to demand that Target explain better how it chooses candidates to donate to and that it apologize for last year's donation.
Gregg Steinhafel, the company's chairman, president and CEO, stood behind a white podium adorned with the Target chain's signature red bull's-eye and tried to deflect the criticism coming his way.
He noted that after last year's election, the company set up a policy committee meant to review how it handles donations, yet he defended Target's need to stay engaged in the political process on issues that affect the company. "Last year was a great learning experience for us," he said.
But, really, he wanted to talk about other things. "Does anybody have a question related to our business that is unrelated to political giving?" he asked.
Target has made a habit of moving its annual meetings around the country to showcase its latest prototypes. Past meetings have been held in places such as Cleveland and Acworth, Ga.
The 145,000-square-foot East Liberty store, scheduled to open in late July, represents the most up-to-date version of the Target vision, including an expanded grocery section. Mr. Steinhafel said about 460 of its 1,750 stores include the "p-fresh" food offering.
Grocery offerings tend to draw customers back more often than clothing or home items, although profit margins are lower. Target hopes consumers who come in for low prices on yogurt or bananas and frozen meals will also pick up a video game or set of new towels.
Although Target is launching an initiative to put smaller stores in urban locations -- the project will begin with locations in Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and San Francisco -- the East Liberty store is not part of that push. Instead, it represents an adaptation of the traditional model for an urban site. The store is built with a parking area on the ground level with the sales floor on the second level.
A big bank of windows along the front, near the 14 checkout stations, and another set along the back near sporting goods and books allow sunlight in. That may help reduce electrical use, as do aisles of frozen food shelving equipped with motion-activated lights.
Rows of black folding chairs set up for Wednesday's meeting filled an area that will hold apparel in just a few weeks.
Those in the audience had a good view of red overhead signs for the Kid's Room and Bedding selections.
Many of the fixtures are lower than in past locations, a change meant to make it easier for customers to find the merchandise they need rather than wander lost through the aisles.
Hiring for the East Liberty store is almost complete, with the total to hit about 250, said Dave Melocchi, store team leader. Training is under way.
Target's annual meeting will probably move on next year to another new store -- the chain continues to expand and plans to open locations in Canada in 2013. But at least one shareholder reported that he had a good time visiting Pittsburgh. City leaders might be happy to learn that he even put in an enthusiastic plug for the Fort Pitt museum.