Rancor welcomes Meijer to Acme Township

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Acme Township — When a big-box store opens in this small town this fall, it will likely draw shoppers from 20 miles away.

Who it won't get, are some folks living down the block.

Part of this northern Michigan community has been fighting the Meijer superstore and nearby development for 15 years.

The vicious battle, which has split the town of 4,300, involved lawsuits, a criminal probe and the ousters of two township boards.

Meijer leaped into the family fight in 2007 by secretly financing a failed attempt to recall the board.

The grocery chain eventually apologized, paying $190,000 in state fines and, with developers, $4 million to settle lawsuits by elected officials.

"Meijer has done terrible things in this community," said lifelong resident Charlene Abernethy. "It made this place dirty."

Other residents vowed to never set foot in the store.

They have turned their attention to the rest of the proposed development.

Meijer is rising from a mile-long vacant lot that may eventually include other stores, restaurants and homes.

In April, residents' complaints led to a $40,000 state fine against the developer for failing to prevent clay sediment from leaking into a nearby creek and bay.

But others said the project's foes need to give up the ghost. After 15 years, enough is enough, they said.

"In today's world there's so much opposition about everything," said township Supervisor Jay Zollinger, who headed a pro-development slate of candidates elected to the board of trustees in 2012.

The welcome sign in Acme Township announces "We're blossoming."

It refers to the summer flora that includes grape orchards on the rolling farmland along the crystalline blue water of Grand Traverse Bay.

When Meijer opens, store supporters hope the community blossoms in another way, with the addition of more businesses.

It's already beginning to happen. An auto parts store and tractor supply shop are being built near Meijer. A closed restaurant is scheduled to reopen.

Meijer and other businesses will increase employment, said supporters. They also will alleviate the tax strain on residents.

Steve Sincic, who owns a salvage yard, likes that the east side of Traverse City will have its own Meijer. He now drives 20 miles to a Meijer on the west side of the city.

But he admits the issue is divisive, even in his own household. His wife opposes the new store.

"I got some real good friends who oppose it," he said. "I went head to head with them."

Opponents of development worry it will trample the natural beauty that surrounds them. They said they don't want to become just another suburb jammed with stores, cars and strip shopping centers.

The two-lane road holding Meijer is already congested and will become more so when the store opens, said Virginia Tegel, a former member of the township Planning Commission.

"Meijer thought they would come here and do what they've done all over the Midwest," she said. "This is one of the most beautiful areas in the U.S."

Town Opposition

Meijer, a $15 billion company that pioneered the superstore concept, proposed building a 232,000-square-foot store and gas station in 1999.

Acme Township trustees welcomed the idea, but five years later, voters removed them from office and replaced them with people who opposed the project.

The new board stymied Meijer and the developers at every turn, forcing the company to make numerous changes, including the location.

"No developer should have to go through a process like this," developer Steve Smith said about the 15-year process. "It was just unbelievable. You can't even imagine."

The board tried to impose a temporary moratorium on superstores in 2005, but the move was rejected by residents in a referendum.

To show how split the community was, the referendum was decided by seven votes, 907-900.

It looked like the store would finally be built in 2006 when the Planning Commission approved the project.

But the trustees rejected the decision, imposing a special-use permit that Meijer said would prevent the store from being constructed.

Store supporters then tried to recall the board but failed to draw enough votes.

Meijer's frustration spilled from an email its director of real estate wrote to then-township Supervisor Bill Kurtz in 2006.

"After all those meetings and based on the repeated contemptible actions taken by your group against Meijer, it is clear to us the agenda of the township is one of lies and deception," wrote Scott Nowakowski.

Meijer's lawsuit

In 2005, Meijer and the developers sued four trustees for conflict of interest. The trustees had belonged to a citizens group that opposed the project.

One trustee filed a counter-suit and, during discovery, learned that Meijer had been secretly involved in the referendum and recall elections.

The grocery chain paid $100,000 for lawyers and public relations to mount campaigns that were made to appear they were led by residents.

The hired guns created a website, wrote campaign literature, developed voter lists, wrote letters to the local paper, sometimes signing the names of local residents, according to court records.

State law prohibited corporations from contributing to political campaigns.

"Illegal corporate thuggery," cried the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

The paper aggressively covered the misdeeds, writing dozens of stories about it.

In response, Meijer yanked its Sunday ad circular, costing the small paper $250,000 a year.

A Meijer spokesman declined to discuss the controversy surrounding the Acme development.

After Meijer won a lawsuit allowing it to build the store, the township board had no choice. It held its nose and approved the project in 2012.

The store is smaller than originally planned, 193,000 square feet, and won't include a gas station.

Despite losing the war, store opponents don't feel like their long campaign was waged in vain.

If nothing else, it opened the public's eyes to how far a corporation would go to get what it wants, said Denny Rohn, president of the citizens group that fought Meijer.

"It will take a long time (for the hard feelings) to go away," she said. "They all knew what they were doing."

After approving the project, the township board was bounced out of office in late 2012.

It was replaced by trustees who support development, just like the board who welcomed Meijer with open arms in 1999.


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Twitter: @francisXdonnell