Walmart. Image via fb.com
The largest retailer in the world recently announced its intentions to put a new Walmart store in Whitehall Township near Muskegon — a move some locals are supporting, saying it could attract and spur more business and others are opposing, saying it could kill economic growth in the area for local businesses.
Since the news of Walmart’s approach, the White Lake Chamber of Commerce board held an emergency meeting Sunday, where an 11-1 vote went against the retail giant’s entry into the area, said Amy VanLoon, executive director of the White Lake chamber’s board.
“There are literally hundreds of articles and reports that study the impact on communities when Walmart enters the market and they are overwhelmingly negative” said Mark Zickel, board chair, in a statement. “The negative impact on existing retailers is particularly devastating in communities with less than 5,000 residents. Some communities similar in size to ours have seen more than 40 percent of their existing retailers go out of business in very short order.”
Although the chamber’s stance has no legal bearing on actually keeping Walmart out, VanLoon said, it does express the community’s emotional response to the situation.
Without citing specific studies, VanLoon said the chamber’s research led members to believe a Walmart would harm the local economy, sucking more money out of the community through loss of business than it would bring in by providing minimum-wage jobs.
It also would hurt not only the niche downtown businesses of the area, she said, but also the unique quality of living in a quaint town free of big-box retailers, which helps tourism for Whitehall. There already are two Walmarts in Muskegon only 15 minutes away, and VanLoon wonders why another is needed in Whitehall.
“We’re a unique tourist destination. The town takes pride in the fact that we don’t have major stores here,” she said. “We feel a Walmart coming in would devastate those small businesses. (I) moved here because it was a quaint community… It’s not commercialized, and that’s the draw of our tourists. (Walmart) could hurt it.”
More opposition was voiced at a Whitehall Township meeting on Monday, VanLoon said, when about 100 residents attended, many of whom were small businesses owners who voiced their concerns about the economic impact the superstore would have on small businesses.
Chuck Schmitigal, Whitehall Township supervisor, said although there has been opposition, a large number of people, himself included, still do support bringing in a major retailer, which could open the door to other businesses following suit and coming to Whitehall.
“It’s hard to say. The people in the township I’ve talked to have been for it, but the city put a petition to stop it,” Schmitigal said. “I think it’d be good for the township, our local schools, and it would have a good tax base.”
A Walmart team, consisting of real estate personnel, engineers, a senior manager and an attorney, met last Tuesday with Schmitigal and other Whitehall officials, he said, expressing their desire to open a store in Whitehall.
Walmart officials said the 126,000-square-foot store will feature general merchandise and a full line of groceries, as well as a bakery, delicatessen and fresh meat, dairy and produce. The project is expected to create up to 300 jobs.
“We look forward to serving our customers in Whitehall Township and the surrounding area with a beautiful new store,” said Mark Wilson, market manager for Walmart. “This new store will bring much needed choice and lower prices to the Whitehall Township area, along with job creation and generating property tax revenue for the township.”
Val Jensen, the zoning administrator for Whitehall Township, said the proposed property Walmart is looking to build on is 30 acres of scrub trees located at the U.S. 31 exit at East Colby Street and West Holton Whitehall Road.
The property, considered commercial land and therefore permitted for retail use, is currently owned by an Indiana resident who bought the land in 2000 and is likely to sell it to Walmart, Jensen added.
Walmart is well within legal rights to build on the land, he said. According to the Zoning Enabling Act of 2006, if a proposed site plan meets zoning ordinance requirements, it shall be approved, he said, adding that Article 10 of the Whitehall Zoning Ordinance says that retail store establishments are considered permitted uses for such land.
Jensen, who feels a major retail store coming to town could attract other major businesses to follow, said he expects plans for the new store to be submitted within the next 30 days, regardless of the of residents who want to keep the Arkansas-based retailer out.
Those residents are not silent, however. A petition aimed at stopping Walmart’s entrance was recently created on change.org and already has 863 supporters.
“Montague, Whitehall and the surrounding area do not need, nor are they demanding the construction of a Walmart in their community,” wrote petition creator Craig Laubach (registered from Pasadena, Calif.), who said his family still living in Whitehall asked him to help them begin the petition. “Walmart pays low wages, devitalizes local businesses and keeps its profits to pay its executives huge salaries. Protect local business and take a stand against corporate profiteering!”
Those behind the petition are doing nothing more than grasping at straws, Jensen said, and trying to force city officials to illegally discriminate against Walmart. Any action keeping Walmart out without proper legal grounds could result in the city being sued, not only by Walmart, but also by the land owner, Jensen said, adding that the township does not need to be paying huge legal bills.
“The board is well aware of the legalities… If Walmart does a proper plan, we’re going to have to approve it. We have no choice, whether we like it or we don’t. But … most of us are in favor of it,” he said. “If you just don’t like Walmart, that’s not a legal reason… For some reason, people have it out for Walmart. If it was a Meijer or a Target, you wouldn’t see as many people vocal against it.”
VanLoon agreed that a Meijer or Target would probably not see as much opposition from the town. For now, however, she and others will try to slow down the process, allowing for more discussion and research.
Walmart’s Wilson said the retailer employs more than 30,000 people at its 91 Michigan locations and the company’s average full-time hourly wage in the state is $12.71 per hour. He added that Walmart spent more than $4 billion for merchandise and services with suppliers in Michigan in 2012.