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2008-07-24
White Lake, MI. Wal-Mart Returns With "Smaller" Superstore

Wal-Mart has turned a dead deal into a done deal by shrinking the size of its store to avoid town-owned land bought with federal dollars. On May 23, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that officials in White Lake, Michigan, believed that their Wal-Mart supercenter deal had fallen through. Local officials said the federal government had botched the deal. The story began on January 2, 2008, with the report that the Wal-Mart discount store on Highland Road in White Lake was going to be expanded. The discount store currently in the township is roughly 127,000 s.f. It's twice the size of a football field -- but it doesn't have a full grocery department. So Wal-Mart wanted to expand it by another 50,000 s.f. into a supercenter. To do that, the retailer had to make a land deal with officials in White Lake, because the property they wanted was owned by the township. White Lake, which calls itself "your four seasons playground," passed a new Master Plan for land use in 2006. In the section on Shopping and Services, the township says it wants to "consider amending the zoning ordinance to encourage parking in the rear and to the side of stores in order to create more pedestrian-friendly and aesthetically appealing retail developments." White Lake officials say they want to maintain the township's "natural features and rural character," while encouraging the "thoughtful placement of a moderate amount of convenience commercial uses within reasonable proximity to neighborhoods." The so-called Fisk Farm site, which Wal-Mart wants, is dominated by a large red barn and smaller out-buildings. The town put the property up for sale, and their Planning Department began reviewing Wal-Mart’s superstore plans in January, 2008. The retailer had proposed buying up roughly 2 acres of land currently used for the Fisk Farm parking lot. Township Supervisor Mike Kowall told the Spinal Column Newsweekly, "They have made a preliminary offer (to buy) the property." Wal-Mart offered $600,000 for the land, which would allow them to add roughly 50,000 s.f. to their building. The township spent $2,000 to have the property appraised. Although the expansion project will have to go through Planning Commission review and township board review, Supervisor Kowall said initially that construction at the site could happen in the spring of 2008. The township bought the 2 acre parcel several years ago for a fire station. But when it was determined that the site was not appropriate for a fire station, the township got into the real estate business with Wal-Mart. Town officials feared that if they did not allow Wal-Mart to expand, the company would shut their discount store down, and leave. "There's a potential there we could lose Wal-Mart," Kowall told the newspaper. "And we would loose about 300 jobs. I don't think with the economy as such, that we can afford to lose anything." In May, 2008, five months after negotiations began, the Spinal Column reported that Wal-Mart's expansion plans were dead. According to the newspaper, the town ran into a "wall of red tape" while trying to put together the land purchase. "It's so balled up in bureaucratic red tape with the federal government that selling that piece of land is virtually out of the question," Supervisor Kowall said. The roadblock appeared when local officials realized that they had used federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds, which are provided to local communities by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The federal government requires that if taxpayer money was used to buy the 2 acre parcel that the town now wants to sell, it must be sold for at least market value. Federal taxpayers gave White Lake the money for the purpose of building a fire station -- not a Wal-Mart. Just because the town later abandoned the idea of a fire station, the land's financial history did not change. "I've spent a lot of time looking into this," Kowall told the newspaper, "and because of the way it's structured, what would end up happening is we would only end up attaining about $87,000 and the rest would be given back to (CDBG funds), although we already paid them back for the property. It's one of those things we'll eventually have to address in the future, but for right now it's just going to take a couple years to get straightened out." But the federal red tape was not the only problem the township had. The newspaper reported that Wal-Mart also had changed its plans. The company decided to "downsize its current operation," but has not yet decided whether or not it will leave its White Lake store altogether. Last May, the White Lake cancellation looked like the 63rd community to see a supercenter cancelled or delayed since Wal-Mart announced its lowered growth expectations in June of 2007. But this week, the Spinal Column reports that the dead deal has now come back to life, and township trustees have approved a smaller site plan for an expansion -- without the use of controversial parcel of land bought with federal money. On July 15th, the township board voted 5-2 to accept a preliminary plan to expand the footprint from 129,587 s.f. to 156,838 s.f. An Automotive Service Station was cut out of the plan. "This is probably going to add about 100 jobs to the area," said Supervisor Kowall. "Then you also get everything else that comes along with an expansion; more taxes for the bigger building, and the like. What this will also do is Wal-Mart will be seen as investing millions of dollars, cleaning up the facade, and giving the space a fresh look. Others will more than likely follow that lead and it will show potential purchasers and developers we have some stability in the area."

What you can do: Economically speaking, Supervisor Kowall is still looking at a dead-end project. White Lake gains little or nothing from this expansion. There are seven Wal-Mart stores within 20 miles of White Lake, including a supercenter 11 miles away in Commerce, and 13 miles away in New Hudson. Adding a grocery store to the Wal-Mart already in White Lake will cannibalize existing grocery stores, and the Supervisor's estimate that this expansion will translate into 100 new jobs is way off the mark. This project duplicates jobs already generating sales at existing grocery stores in White Lake. Many public officials think that new retail stores adds to the net number of new jobs. They may add to the gross number of jobs -- but when you subtract jobs lost at other merchants who cut back jobs or close entirely, there is little or no gain. Readers are urged to contact Supervisor Mike Kowall by emailing him at: dpotter@whitelaketwp.com, or calling 248-698-3300 x 123, with this message: "White Lake only has 30,160 people. One Wal-Mart in town is one more than enough. Approving the grocery store expansion for Wal-Mart is not a job generator. This is not economic development, because all that Wal-Mart does is transfer sales from existing retailers. They make nothing. A conventional big box store, with its huge parking lot out front, is not in keeping with the goals of your Master Plan. It's time for White Lake to think outside of the box -- and truly protect your rural character. Keep commercial growth moderate and small, if you plan to keep it near residential property. This Wal-Mart expansion is a terrible fit for White Lake, and the township is better off without it. White Lake should finish its work on better design standards so that more big boxes don't line your highways. You've approved just the preliminary plan, but now its time to ask Wal-Mart why they need a bigger store at all, given the fact that they build 99,000 s.f. supercenters today. The township was better off when it looked like Wal-Mart was a dead deal."










 
 
"Norman has become the guru of the anti-Wal-Mart movement" ~ 60 Minutes

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