Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Control Big-Box Stores, Chart Acme’s Future

Control Big-Box Stores, Chart Acme’s Future

The region's interest ahead of impatient few

July 31, 2005 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Bill Millken: “For me, the fear is the hidden costs that underpin the behemoth retailers.”

Residents of Acme Township will head to the polls August 2 to decide whether to allow the township board nine months to develop new rules for managing big-box stores. The elected board already approved a nine-month moratorium on such stores while it studies the matter, but a petition drive put the action to a vote.

I urge Acme residents to cast a “yes” vote and place the township’s, and indeed the region’s, interest ahead of an impatient few.

I’ll confess to a personal interest in the outcome. I spent a memorable part of my childhood in Acme, exploring its natural places with my family and friends. Many of those places still exist and afford new generations of children the same joy I’ve known. Nine months strikes me as a very small investment to protect something so priceless as Acme’s rural character and quality of life.

Big-Box, Potential For Big Problems 
What’s behind this concern over big-box stores? For many like me, the fear is the hidden costs that underpin the behemoth retailers – costs borne not by the stores, but forced onto the communities they inhabit. These outlets promise low prices but can drive up local taxes to pay for the big problems that don’t show up on their products’ price tags, like heavy traffic congestion, lost farmland, shuttered local shops, and weakened downtowns.

At their worst, big-box stores are little more than windowless warehouses with gaudy signs out front that cost communities more than they save. We do not accept such negative impacts and shabby design with our homes, schools, or places of worship. So why when we go shopping, should we be expected to forfeit tax dollars and community character as the price of admission?

Of course, we should not.

Develop A Sound Vision For Future
The big-box lesson from across the nation is this: Communities attract quality growth when they their residents help develop a vision for their future, the laws to make it so, and then welcome creative entrepreneurs who provide the goods and services that people need and desire.

Acme is already halfway there. Its vision for a compact town center is akin to that in nearby Elk Rapids, but lacks zoning ordinances to foster it. The nine-month moratorium would allow the township board and residents to figure out the best way to manage the size, design, and location of large-scale commercial growth.

The threat to Acme Township is growing. Today, only one store there, Kmart, truly merits the “big-box” label. Meijer, however, is proposing to build a store in Acme more than two-and-a-half times larger than Kmart, and mega-retailer Wal-Mart has long eyed the township. Right now, there is no way to control such development; Acme’s current zoning allows big-box stores of unlimited size in many locations.

Local Control
I think a “yes” vote on August 2 is a vote for true local control. The harm big-box stores do to communities is significant and long-term. Even if you find yourself shopping at such stores, I’d hope you would agree that acting to eliminate or lessen their negative effects is reasonable. It’s the difference between growing by choice or by chance.

Charlevoix, Charlevoix Township, and many other places across the United States have passed local laws that have convinced some major retailers to redesign their big boxes into more compact, smarter places that complement, rather than dominate, communities.

Acme Township now faces that challenge, which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Garfield Township has ridden the big-box wave for a decade; now Blair Township, the next ring out from Traverse City, is experiencing the same pressures.

Acme can and should get a handle on this spiraling sprawl. In fact, the entire Grand Traverse region sorely needs to coordinate its growth plans and laws before reckless development mars the last remnants of rural character. So I draw hope from and endorse the fledgling Grand Traverse land use and transportation study, which aims to involve citizens and officials in charting a regional growth strategy. I continue to believe, like the study participants do, that engaging and empowering the public yields lasting results.

The debate in Acme is not about gaining this store or that. Rather, it’s about what the township could lose forever if shortsightedness prevails and big-box stores are allowed to trample Acme’s rural heritage.

As someone who has had the honor to steward all of Michigan’s 37 million acres of land, I can say without hesitation that Acme’s acres are as worthy of protection and wise planning as any. We must meet today’s challenges eagerly, but patiently, if we are to keep our promise to our children and grandchildren of a better tomorrow.

William G. Milliken, a Republican, was governor of Michigan from 1969 to 1982 — the longest serving governor in the state’s history. In 2003 he was appointed by Governor Jennifer Granholm to co-chair the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council, which recommended steps the state needs to take to slow sprawl, rebuild cities, conserve natural resources, and improve the state’s economic competitiveness.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org