Residents in White Lake, Michigan have learned the hard way that national chain stores call the shots, not local officials. After five months of negotiations, a land deal between the township and Wal-Mart has fallen apart. Local officials think the federal government botched the deal, but it was really Wal-Mart which backed out — just as it has in 62 other cases this past year. On January 2, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported 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., has a pharmacy, photo center, portrait studio, tire and lube center, garden center, and vision center. It’s also 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 outbuildings. 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. Wal-Mart told township officials that the project would “create” 150 jobs — a figure which the Spinal Column printed without challenge. Most of the “new” jobs would be grocery jobs transferred from existing grocers that go out of business. 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 construction at the site could happen this spring. 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 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.” This week, five months after negotiations began, the Spinal Column reports that Wal-Mart’s expansion plans are 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 admitted. 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. The town later abandoned the idea of a fire station, but 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 is not the only problem the township faces. 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. The expansion was supposed to start breaking ground by now — but it appears a supercenter in White Lake has just gone under the waves. It was not federal bureaucracy that killed it. Wal-Mart’s dramatic cutback in new supercenters is what sank Wal-Mart in White Lake. This is the 63rd community to see a supercenter cancelled or delayed since Wal-Mart’s growth implosion last June.
Economically speaking, White Lake gained 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 would have cannibalized existing grocery stores, and the Supervisor’s fear of losing “about 300 jobs” is based on the existing Wal-Mart shutting down, and the supercenter going elsewhere. But there already are Wal-Mart’s on every side of White Lake. Readers are urged to contact Supervisor Mike Kowall by emailing him at: [email protected], 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. Losing the grocery store expansion on the Wal-Mart was not a job creator. A store the size of three football fields would add more cars and crime to your “four seasons playground.” The Fisk Farm property was bought with federal taxpayers funds, and was never meant for a Wal-Mart. A conventional big box store, with its huge parking lot out front, is not in keeping with the goals of your Master Plan anyway. 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 was a terrible fit for White Lake, and the township is better off with it gone. White Lake should finish its work on better design standards so that more big boxes don’t line your highways.”