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Private Instincts, Public Good

In era of rancor, uncommon allies unite around halting sprawl

May 30, 2004 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Demographic, cultural, and environmental trends have sparked an unprecedented wave of grassroots activism in 10 northwest Michigan counties. The goal: Managing growth to build a cleaner and greener economy.

Bob Hoffman is 56, an engaging, stout native of Detroit who moved to Charlevoix, Michigan in 1987 to open an accounting office. He also is a dedicated Republican, which lands him dead center in the majority of voters in this picturesque rural county of 26,000 people along the northern coast of Lake Michigan. Mr. Hoffman, in short, does not fit the conventional image of an ardent grassroots agitator bent on defending small-town values and world-class natural resources from the depredations of global corporations.

But last week, just six months after Mr. Hoffman and a resolute group of residents launched a citizen movement to prevent Wal-Mart from damaging their area’s economy and neighborly way of life, that company — the world’s largest — threw in the towel in Charlevoix Township. In an almost blithe three-sentence email, Wal-Mart said it was abandoning its nearly year-old plan to build a 155,800-square-foot supercenter on a wooded 24-acre parcel just beyond the city limits.

Naturally, the news elated Mr. Hoffman and the other leaders of This Is Our Town, the non-profit group they formed to stop the supercenter. Wal-Mart’s abdication, though, drew cheers from far beyond Charlevoix County. Like so many other grassroots struggles to defend community values and advance Smart Growth in northwest Michigan and throughout the nation, victory was attained because untraditional allies found common political ground in the hard work of halting sprawl.

Different Views, Identical Goals
Indeed, the national movement to invent new patterns of development that strengthen rather then spread out communities, protect rather than exploit natural resources, and build rather than drain cities is one of the rare arenas in national political life where people of differing views are eagerly working together.

Examples are legion. Proposals for a new light-rail line in Seattle attracted broad support from all sectors of the community and helped to elect a new mayor. Republican governors in Massachusetts, South Carolina, Utah, and California have sought and gained help from Democrats to improve state programs for housing, schools, transportation, and the environment. House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois just formed a "Saving America's Cities" task force, taking a cue from Chicago, which remade itself as one of America’s choicest places to live and work because blacks and whites, suburban and urban residents, liberals and conservatives agreed to invest in public transit, public schools, parks, housing, and new businesses.

The same untraditional alliances are forming in Charlevoix County and throughout the thinly populated, 10-county region of farms and forests at the top of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. A confluence of demographic, cultural, and environmental trends have turned these counties — the fastest growing in the Middle West — into a crucible of grassroots activism with one objective: Managing growth to build a cleaner and greener economy. Defying conventional right-left, business-environmental, wealthy-working class divisions, dozens of campaigns in recent years have succeeded precisely because the participants have been so diverse.

A String of Victories
Few rural regions of the nation have made so much progress. Along with the victory over Wal-Mart, in recent weeks northwest Michigan citizens halted a $700 million coal-fired electric generating plant in Manistee County and are now developing a regional energy strategy based on promoting renewable sources of power.

The Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau, which represents the region’s tourist-based businesses, hired William McDonough, the renowned Virginia-based architect and designer, to launch a $200,000 project to develop a more aggressive, business-backed approach to protect the region’s scenic resources and rural quality of life.

The Traverse City Commission, led by a non-partisan mayor and supported by working people and land use advocates, just approved a new downtown commuter bus station over the objections of some influential business owners who raised unsubstantiated concerns that the station would hurt downtown businesses and lower property values. 

Citizens in conservative Acme Township wrote a land use plan that calls for building a real town in a farm field, complete with a main street and alleys, store fronts and homes. And they’ve fought off one proposal after another that would instead turn their vision into a typical, million-square-foot, big-box mall.

Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm worked with a local land conservancy to permanently protect a rare expanse of more than 6,000 acres of forest, wetland, and dunes along Lake Michigan in Benzie County. The governor also cooperated with recreational groups and approved measures to protect two more rivers in the region from over-development. Ms. Granholm also supports a broad coalition of residents, fishermen, recreational business owners, and Smart Growth advocates that is closing in on halting a sprawl-producing bridge over the magnificent and wild Boardman River south of Traverse City and replacing it with a much less expensive and more sensitive alternative transportation plan based on modernizing an existing bridge nearby.

Piece by piece and place by place, residents of northwest Michigan are systematically rejecting the kind of out-of-scale, inappropriate big-box stores, highways, subdivisions, and strip malls that have ruined so many other beautiful regions. They are instead insisting on smaller stores, offices built in downtowns, new homes in traditional neighborhoods, and vastly improved public transit. Simultaneously, residents are convincing elected leaders to strengthen local and state programs to protect what is irreplaceable: windswept Great Lakes beaches, wild rivers, miles of forest, and the region’s distinctive small-town ways.

“We need places that inspire the whole world,” Mr. McDonough, the designer, told some 500 people earlier this week in Traverse City. “We need places where the world gets better because human being are there, not worse. Traverse City is known in the United States. You really are. You’re a touchstone.”

Learning from Mistakes
Of course every decision to fill in the region’s downtowns with new homes and businesses, to add recreational trails and new parks, and to conserve farmland and natural places makes northwest Michigan even more of a magnet. The central issue at almost every public meeting in northwest Michigan is: When does a touchstone become a tombstone?

To be sure, there are still too many builders, business owners, and landowners who are making sacks of money serving growth, which in almost every northwest Michigan county topped 20 percent in the 1990s. The growth-at-any-cost advocates denigrate their opposition as some sort of socialist plot and pour dollars into the campaigns of right-wing Republican state legislators who cry “property rights” whenever careful land use planning is mentioned. And, sadly, money talks. The delegation of conservative state representatives and senators that northwest Michigan sends to Lansing is among the most influential groups opposing the enforcement of state environmental laws.

But that will change, and sooner rather than later. The abundance of free-flowing, trout-filled rivers is one of the important reasons that since the mid-1990s northwest Michigan, especially the area closest to Traverse City, has consistently drawn high praise from national magazines and independent rankings as one of the best places to live and do business in the country. For reasons that are both as beckoning as the deep blue waters of Grand Traverse Bay and as insistent as what writer David Brooks calls our American capacity to be “consumed by hope, driven ineluctably to improve, fervently optimistic, relentlessly inspiring,” northern Michigan residents are determined not to repeat the past mistake made in so many other once-beautiful American places — letting growth overwhelm all other social and cultural values.

Renewing Old Values
The advocates who comprise This Is Our Town embody that goal. Starting with Mr. Hoffman, the group’s members defy characterization. They are all of us: men and women, young and old, professional and blue collar. They are conservatives who embrace the anti-government, anti-regulatory, anti-environmental, pro-gun rhetoric of the Republican Party. And they are classic liberals, distrustful of corporations, nervous about globalization, and comfortable with the role government can play to make their lives better.

Wal-Mart may never disclose precisely why it pulled out of Charlevoix. After all, it has three other large stores within driving distance. But it also is abundantly plain that This Is Our Town executed a nearly flawless grassroots campaign that blocked Wal-Mart’s way. Mr. Hoffman and his colleagues did their homework, developed clear messages about the jobs and incomes that Wal-Mart would replace, stayed on message, and advocated for their cause with a conviction that belied their own doubts that they could prevail.

Week by week, This Is Our Town gradually convinced Charlevoix County residents that Wal-Mart’s low prices were like the enticing early flakes of a vicious blizzard of job, business, economic, and environmental trends that could bury the region. Even the city’s chamber of commerce and downtown development authority backed the campaign, which gained such remarkable momentum that by April it looked as though This Is Our Town would win its battle where it counted first: With a majority vote by the Charlevoix Township Planning Commission to deny Wal-Mart a construction permit.

Blocking Wal-Mart is the latest step that northwest Michigan has taken to build an economy and way of life that celebrates the central features of its geography: forests, pure water, intimate communities. People here are discovering that their own private instincts to secure this singularly beautiful place are quickly coalescing into a renewed, widely shared appreciation of the common good.

Keith Schneider, a journalist and editor, is the deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org

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