School departments should build schools and manage quality education — but not try to use publicly-owned land to act like real estate moguls. When school officials choose not to use land they own for schools, they should return the land to the public to dispose of — not start negotiating with big box retailers. On June 6, 2004, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart plans for a superstore in Jackson, Michigan had been withdrawn. The Citizen Patriot newspaper announced June 4th that Wal-Mart had pulled the plug on its plan to build a second store in East Jackson. “We’ve been notified that they’re not going to proceed,” East Jackson Superintendent Bruce Van Eyck told the paper. 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. Wal-Mart was unavailable for comment at the time. 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. Looks like school officials learned nothing from the overall impact their sell-out to Wal-Mart would have caused. 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. The Citizen Patriot says Wal-Mart is back in class again — showing up again 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. School Superintendent Bruce Van Eyck told the 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. The newspaper claims Wal-Mart dropped out in 2004 because it was unable to buy all the property it needed to build the east-side store. 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 after 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.
Sprawl-Busters also received the following account this week of the first Wal-Mart battle in Jackson, a city with roughly 37,000 people. “I was involved in the fight to oppose a
Wal-Mart super store here in East Jackson Michigan, approximately five years ago. What few people know — and local school officials, and Wal-Mart properties don’t want people to know — is the real reason for the store failure. Much of the project was slated for a five acre plus wetlands area. In Michigan, anything over five acres is protected. I contacted the county GIS coordinator, County soil conservation people, etc., and compiled a series of aerial maps, soils sample data, and USGS water table maps, and then took this information to the state Department of Environmental Quality. I was successful in getting the area in question declared a protected wetlands area. I then sent copies of my findings to Wal-Mart Properties. I also cc’d CESO Engineering ( Wal-Mart’s civil Engineering firm), the school district, the township supervisor, the Jackson Citizen patriot, and Fox 47 news. I was attempting to establish irrefutable evidence that Wal-Mart, and the municipalities involved were aware of the wetlands. Ten days later, the school district announced that Wal-Mart was backing out of the deal. Well, five years have passed, and the school district has just announced that Wal-Mart is once again interested in the site. Plans published in the newspaper show a much smaller store, which appears to be planned around the wetlands areas.” No doubt the wetlands issue will surface again in this revisiting of Wal-Mart’s first plans. Residents will have to overcome the School Superintendent’s, and the Leoni Supervisor’s bias in favor of the project. Even before formal plans are submitted, both these people have taken an ‘open arms’ position vis a vis the superstore. 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. Readers are urged to email School Superintendent Bruce Van Eyck at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Superintendent Van Eyck, 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. Give your students a real life lesson: we don’t always do things for money, especially if they are environmentally wasteful, and economically harmful.”