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Can Emmet Think Outside the Box?

Likely Meijer approval raises stakes for county’s Comprehensive Plan

January 12, 2008 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Emmet County hugs the beautiful Lake Michigan shoreline, but big-box development threatens its scenery and Petoskey’s downtown business district.

PETOSKEY—With its charming 19th-century buildings, dozens of attractive stores, and breathtaking views of Lake Michigan’s Little Traverse Bay, this city’s downtown shopping district rivals that of any small town on the Great Lakes. That makes the downtown a strong magnet for tourists—and a pillar of northern Michigan’s economy.

But with approval looming for a new mega-store in adjacent Bear Creek Township, which already has a string of big-box stores lining the main highway into this city, downtown officials and shop owners say they are more worried than ever about the effects of the sprawling commercial development rising just outside of Petoskey. They fear it will harm their businesses—and the scenic beauty the region depends on for tourists’ dollars.

"It concerns us a lot," said Petoskey Mayor Dale Meyer, who owns a downtown hardware store. "The biggest problem I see is people are no longer utilizing our downtown for the purchase of everyday products. We used to have two drug stores downtown. We don’t have them anymore."

Yet at a recent Bear Creek Township Planning Commission meeting, no one spoke out against the proposed new big box that Meijer Inc. wants to build—a notable change from a decade ago, when many local residents fought fiercely against big boxes.

The lack of controversy over the Meijer proposal has some people wondering whether citizens will take advantage of the Comprehensive Plan Update being conducted by Emmet County, which supervises planning and zoning for Bear Creek Township. The update could lead to a more regional approach to planning, which is key to better controlling sprawl, protecting open space, and boosting both this city’s—and the region’s—prosperity.

Tammy Doernenburg, the county’s assistant director for planning, zoning, and ordinance enforcement, is urging citizens concerned about future development to get involved in the Comprehensive Plan by attending the next public input meeting, on Jan. 17 at 5 p.m. at the Emmet County Courthouse.

Given that big-box opponents here have so far been unable to stop mega-store development, some observers say it’s not surprising that resistance has faded. But one national expert on the economic effects of big-box stores told the Great Lakes News Service that residents should not give up on trying to control the big outlets.

"It’s never too late," said Stacy Mitchell, the author Big Box Swindle, a book extremely critical of large-scale retail. "There is always going to be more of this development waiting in the wings. At some point you say, ‘Okay this is enough, we need to maintain some type of balance.’"

One Box at a Time
The first time area residents tried to stop big-box development in Emmet was a decade ago, when a downstate developer wanted to bring a Wal-Mart store to the township. He overcame strong citizen opposition to building the project in a residential district along U.S. 131 on the outskirts of Petoskey by convincing Bear Creek Township to mostly ignore the project’s opponents: The township approved the project, but promised such developments would stop right there.

But when another downstate developer proposed a second, adjacent big-box project in 2002, township officials folded in the face of a lawsuit and negotiated a court-sanctioned agreement that allowed the company to develop 300,000 square feet of big box retail space. Today U.S 131 is lined with big-box retailers, including Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Lowe’s, and a host of chain restaurants that make the area look a lot like most other American towns.

Meijer, which refused to be interviewed by the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service for this article, is currently seeking permission to build a 157,000-square-foot retail outlet, a 600-space parking lot, a gas station, a pharmacy, and a convenience store on 22 acres of land. The company still needs county permission to build a water retention pond on an adjacent parcel not zoned for such use. Even if the county cooperates, however, it is unclear how Meijer would get water to the site. It could request a hookup to Petoskey’s municipal system, but the city could also turn the company down.

Company executives argue that the region should welcome the store, and Roger Shepler, who helps Meijer select new store locations, told the Bear Creek Township Planning Commission in November that the outlet would generate 400 jobs. Mr. Shepler also claimed that Meijer has a long history of good corporate citizenship in Michigan, a claim that some say needs more scrutiny given Meijer’s recent, possibly illegal attempt to influence an election in Acme, 70 miles south of here, and its practice of filing personal lawsuits against public officials who oppose their plans.

Deal or No Deal?
Questionable tactics aside, many downtown merchants are not convinced that the company’s job claims and community activities add up to a good deal.

For example, B.J. Shawn, who has operated Bear Cub Outfitters in Petoskey for nearly a decade, said that even though the downtown offers a shopping experience quite different from big boxes, she worries about the effects of Bear Creek’s burgeoning sprawl. Ms. Shawn said that the township and Emmet County must act soon to reign in such development, or Petoskey’s Up North, small-towncharm will fade away.

"This area is very dependent on people who want to come here because it is unique and different from where they are living now," Ms. Shawn said. "If we resemble the towns that tourists live in now, with all the big boxes, we will look like everywhere else and there will be less of a need to come up here."

She added that the shopping patterns that big boxes encourage will hurt downtown Petoskey.

"Shopping, restaurants, movie theaters, a casino," she said, ticking off the typical growth pattern of many big-box developments. "Eventually you create a self-contained little world where people run out of time to come downtown."

Jutta Cutler, who owns Cutler’s Petoskey and has operated businesses in Harbor Springs and Petoskey since 1965, has a more optimistic view of battling big boxes. Ms. Cutler said that many shoppers patronize both downtown shops and the big-box malls. She believes that if the downtown keeps storefronts filled and the area charming, businesses will continues to thrive.

"As a specialty retailer, you have to focus on who your customer is," she said. "I don’t think you can worry about what is meant for a different market."

But Becky Goodman, downtown director of the Petoskey Regional Chamber of Commerce, said that argument goes only so far.

"We draw shoppers from around the country as well as locally," Ms. Goodman pointed out. "One of the reasons people come here and to downtown is that they love the beauty and charm of the region. The open space is an actual commodity that we cannot afford to forget we are selling. If we continue to transform our open space and the corridor leading downtown into ‘generica,’ downtown will lose also."

Losers and Winners
Some experts argue, however, that even when scenery is not involved, defending a community from big-box retail and uncontrolled sprawl makes economic sense. One respected study on how big boxes affect local retail businesses in Iowa determined that when major chains opened there, communities lost up to 47 percent of their local retail business.

"The massive scale of these big-box stores undermines small independent businesses that form the fabric of healthy communities," said Sarah Anderson, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C., which conducted the study. "Local officials have a responsibility to encourage a broader debate about what we value in our communities. Is it just how cheap you can get a DVD player, or is it quality of jobs and quality of life?"

Ms. Mitchell’s book, Big Box Swindle, chronicles the tactics big national retailers use to sell their stores to local communities. She said it is a mistake to assume that, because Petoskey offers high-end retail shopping, it is immune from the big-box effect.

"Many big retail chains constantly expand into new markets," Ms. Mitchell said. "Lowe’s and Home Depot used to carry just very basic gardening supply and plants. Now, they have more high-end stuff for the more serious gardener. They always look for opportunities to eat someone else’s lunch."

She also noted that downtowns that opt strictly for high-end stores become "downtowns that no longer serves the needs of the whole community, and it’s no longer a community center."

As if to prove her point, Mayor Meyer said in a separate interview that one longtime local grocery chain, Oleson’s, is planning to move outside the city.

Holding On
Petoskey officials are looking for ways to hold onto their customers in the face of Bear Creek’s big-box buildup. The city hired consultants and invested significant amounts of money to spruce up the downtown’s charm, and is, among other things, considering installing grassy medians in prominent areas. The mayor believes that such efforts will help maintain his town’s shopping allure.

"I don’t think we will lose our distinction," Mayor Meyer said. "We do have a real unique location being along Lake Michigan, and we do have a number of people within our communities who are involved in historic preservation."

But he, other officials, and Ms. Goodman see a dramatic need to change how planning decisions are made in Emmet County. Both the mayor and the chamber’s Ms. Goodman say they hope more people will get involved in the updating and encourage local officials to think outside the box.

"I would love to see a more regional approach to planning, especially in northern Michigan, where we still have a precious environment to preserve and promote," Ms. Goodman said.

The next meeting regarding Emmet County's Comprehensive Plan Update takes place on January 17, 2008, at 5 p.m. at the Emmet County Court House. Glenn Puit is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Emmet County policy specialist. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org.

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