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2009-01-03
Jackson, MI. School Wants Second Chance to Sell Land To Wal-Mart For Supercenter

On December 14, 2008, Sprawl-Busters described the real estate deal that a public school system in Jackson, Michigan hopes will rescue its distressed budget. The East Jackson, Michigan Superintendent of Schools, Bruce Van Eyck, had prepared a list of cutting options available to this district, including closing the Middle School, selling off the district's bus fleet, privatizing the custodial department, and hiring a private company to do food services. But there was another option presented at the School Board meeting: selling land to Wal-Mart. Van Eyck told the Board the district could have some additional money coming. He announced that Wal-Mart wants to buy school property next to the Memorial Elementary school for $1 million, and build a superstore right next to the school. This story tracks back to June 6, 2004, when Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart's plans for a superstore on school property in Jackson had been withdrawn. "We've been notified that they're not going to proceed," Superintendent Van Eyck said. The retail giant notified the district it was terminating its agreement to buy school property because it was not able to purchase all of the properties it needed to build the store. The company was already building a 206,000 s.f. supercenter at the Westwood Mall on the west side of East Jackson. Wal-Mart had agreed to buy 11.67 acres of East Jackson Community Schools land on N. Dettman Road for $1.29 million. Two of the three home owners on N. Dettman Road had already agreed to sell their houses. Wal-Mart also was trying to negotiate purchase agreements with three businesses, including an auto parts store, a shoe store and a fast-food restaurant. Someone obviously held out, killing the plan. School officials lamented the loss, saying that the deal would have brought the district revenues for long-term projected needs and improved its tax base. School officials did not comment on the overall financial impact that two Wal-Mart supercenters would have had on the community, nor whether the school district had even bothered to try to do the math. School officials apparently didn't learn their lesson in 2004, because on December 9, 2008 -- almost four years after the first Wal-Mart collapse -- the same school officials were back in the middle of a controversial big box real estate deal. Wal-Mart was back in class again -- showing up before the East Jackson School Board meeting with a plan to use the east side of Jackson, near E. Michigan Avenue and Dettman Road for a 151,847 s.f. store south of the area's Elementary School. Van Eyck told the Citizen Patriot newspaper, "Wal-Mart is looking at the area. They need to buy approximately 10 acres (from the school district). Most of it is vacant. The only part that is being used right now is for a little ball field." The school board, which owns 32 acres in the area, will hold a special meeting on the evening of January 5, 2009 at the Memorial Elementary School to answer questions from residents about Wal-Mart's second effort in East Jackson. East Jackson school board members are sharpening their pencils over the sale to Wal-Mart. The Superintendent clearly wants the deal to go through as a way to build up funds in the district's rainy day fund. In 2003, the school board voted 4-3 not to sell the land to Wal-Mart, but shortly afterwards reversed their vote. Such reversals are usually the result of political arm-twisting. Opponents raised the issues of student safety, traffic flow, and visual aesthetics during the original battle. This time around the School Superintendent is trying to set the stage for a more positive outcome. "I wouldn't anticipate there being as much controversy now," Superintendent Van Eyck told the media. "Wherever Wal-Mart landed the first time was going to be controversial with the unions and people who opposed it. A lot of those worst-case scenarios have been addressed." Today, 3 of the members of the school board were also sitting on the board back in 2004 -- and all three voted to sell the land to Wal-Mart. The Superintendent seems to be one of the few people in town who has actually seen the superstore plans. He says Wal-Mart is offering to buy the publicly-owned land for $111,000 per acre -- the same price it offered 4 years ago. The Supervisor in Leoni Township, Michigan, Todd Brittain said he'd welcome the Wal-Mart proposal "with open arms," despite the fact that he has not seen the plan. "It will definitely help the township out and the taxpayers," he said. "I'm a huge supporter of bringing business to the area. I just hope they use local labor on their projects." On December 10th, the Leoni Township's Board held a public meeting about Wal-Mart's plans, and 60 people showed up. Brittain revealed that Wal-Mart is also looking at two other sites in the area -- as a way, perhaps, to make local residents fight not to let the Dettman Road site be lost again. East Jackson School Board President Doug Scott claims that Wal-Mart has made no formal offer to the school district, but the board wants to be prepared. "We expect there will be a number of people, certainly residents in the area, that will come (to the meeting)," Scott told the newspaper. "The primary focus is going to be on the safety of the kids, the traffic and that kind of thing. We want to make sure we don't do something that puts the kids at risk."


What you can do: Area residents will get their chance to speak on January 5th. The East Jackson School Board meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the elementary school. Both Scott and Van Eyck are hoping that few people show up. Although the same deal in 2004 was very controversial, and 50 people testified at the public hearing, Scott says now that things are quieter. "There hasn't been the same kind of feedback coming back out of the community this time. It's not the first Wal-Mart and the other store has already established itself as a community partner. I'm cautiously optimistic we will have a good crowd and constructive conversation. The board is certainly ready to hear the comments of the community and then make a more informed decision once we hear what people have to say." Opponents of the story charge that this land contains a five acre wetland that is protected from development -- and that's why Wal-Mart backed out of the plan the first time around. Our contacts in Jackson say Wal-Mart has reduced the size of its store, and it is being planned around the wetlands now. Ironically, there is no need for a second superstore in Jackson. Wal-Mart supercenter # 5160 at 1700 West Michigan Avenue is located just a short drive away from the proposed site. Most of the sales at a Dettman Road site would be transferred from the West Michigan Avenue superstore -- a form of Wal-Mart cannibalism. A second Wal-Mart superstore so close to an existing store is just an effort by the giant retailer to take market share away from retailers like Meijer's and Kroger, both of which have stores in Jackson. School Board members want to hear from the public, so readers are urged to email School Superintendent Bruce Van Eyck before the close of work on Monday, January 5, 2009 at: ejcs@voyager.net with the following message: "Dear Superintendent Van Eyck and Chairman Scott, I'm sure the voters of your school district expect you to focus your skills on overseeing a quality educational experience for your students -- but not to be distracted by brokering real estate deals. I hope you will not seek to balance your budget by selling land to Wal-Mart. You are projecting a $372,000 fund balance in your General Fund by next June. Don't try to pay for education by selling land to a retailer that is cannibalizing its own store in Jackson, just to gain market share over Kroger and Meijer's. You are not expected to be a retail analyst, or a real estate broker for that matter. The school district may own the 10 acres in question -- but it is really the taxpayer's land -- and it is a sorry state of affairs when schools have to be paid for by selling excess land to Wal-Mart -- which uses its Foundation money to undermine the public school system. This project may add revenues to your balance sheet, but it adds no value to the Jackson retail economy, because you already have a Wal-Mart supercenter just minutes away. If the district no longer needs this land for a school, give it back to the taxpayers, and let it be used to support some real economic development goal -- or be kept as open space. There is evidence to suggest that much of this area is sensitive wetlands, and should not be built on anyway. It's also a terrible idea to build a huge retail store next to an elementary school. Kids and intense traffic are a bad combination. Wal-Mart's traffic engineers will tell you the problem doesn't exist, but the first child who is injured at that site will make front page news. Give your students a real life lesson: we don't always do things for money, especially if they are environmentally wasteful, and economically harmful."










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

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