Ellis Boal for Congress
Empty Stores, Lovely Coasts
Thoughts on Economic Development in Charlevoix County
February 10, 2006
Articles and letters in the Charlevoix Courier in recent weeks have noted the depressed state of the city's year-round economy, reflected in the large number of empty buildings in downtown Charlevoix.
For years, concerns like this have been articulated, not just here but throughout northern Michigan. It's a difficult problem, partly because it arises from regional and national difficulties over which local officeholders have no control. The downtowns of all the towns around here, and of Traverse City our regional hub, have similar empty buildings.
At the same time we live amid fabulous beauty. The county has 100+ miles of Great Lakes shoreline, 200+ miles of rivers and streams, and 36 square miles of lakes. We want to preserve them.
Can these goals be reconciled?
In November I was nominated as the Green Party candidate for county commissioner in the district 1 election on February 28. Since then I have made it my business to learn the county and investigate this problem. The schedule page, shows over 40 meetings with county, township, economic, and political individuals and boards I have attended since my nomination.
Are there solutions? One approach was Wal-Mart's attempt to build a superstore in Charlevoix Township in 2004. This Is Our Town, a citizens group of which I was a board member, sprang into existence to stop it. Later a successor to TIOT spearheaded a zoning ordinance that will keep Wal-Mart and other big-boxes out forever.
One of my opponents, Republican John Haggard, opposed the ordinance on free-market grounds. In November, township voters passed it by 61%.
A letter-writer to the Courier last week made the point that because Charlevoix has no Wal-Mart, frugal shoppers go to the Wal-Mart in the next county, taking business away from here. The letter notes that shopping elsewhere was one of the messages of TIOT.
It is true. That was one of our messages. But it was a NIMBY message ("not in my back yard"), and one that I myself didn't care to articulate. I preferred to talk about the economic hazards. Wal-Mart's jobs would have been low-wage and non-union. The store would have been negative for the community as a whole. Studies have shown this, the most entertaining being last fall's critically-acclaimed movie, Wal-Mart, The High Cost of Low Price.
Drain commissioner JoAnne Beemon, a fellow Green, also promulgated regulations which helped to stop the company. In the end a bad thing became a good thing, and the community was united.
A second approach was proposed in an unsigned Courier article last November 9. It announced the Democrats' endorsement of Independent Connie Saltonstall, my other opponent, who had not yet collected signatures. "Grand Traverse County has a waiting list of clean industries hoping to relocate there," she pointed out in the article, and added that Charlevoix has the same potential.
That didn't seem right. I faxed the article to the heads of the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Development Authority, and showed it to the Traverse City assistant city manager. I asked what official was in charge of the waiting list, and how a clean industry would apply to get on it and into the county. None of them had heard of it. Nor had county health officer Gerald Chase when I showed it to him; he was quoted in the same article. I turns out that the Traverse City DDA website has a page advertising owners of space looking for tenants. There is also a list of retailers looking for space. But there is no waiting, and some of the people on the two lists, which are public, are negotiating with each other.
In November I emailed Connie telling of my investigation and asking for specifics. She didn't write back. This week I faxed the article to the marketing director of a Traverse City bank. He couldn't imagine such a waiting list. I have concluded it does not exist.
Would anything else work? Last week I met with Andy Hayes of the Northern Lakes Economic Alliance, which covers Charlevoix, Emmet, and Antrim Counties. The counties provide a large part of NLEA funding. His predecessor, Tom Johnson, came to a Green Party meeting a couple of years ago and said he had voted Green. Like everyone else in Traverse City and here, Andy emphasized the importance of non-polluting, non-congesting businesses, to preserve the natural beauty of the area. He favored the idea of clustering small businesses and utilities into industrial parks. He noted the efforts of municipalities throughout the area, who have planners and recruiters on staff. NLEA works with them, providing technical and community support. (The city of Charlevoix was an exception, a legitimate choice, he said.) Incrementally in bits and pieces NLEA seems to be doing the right thing, and even making advances in some instances.
What's the bottom line? We see two possible approaches above. One was the citizen action, initially unaided by government, which stopped Wal-Mart. Government/business partnerships like NLEA are the other.
Having been a citizen activist for many years, I tend to favor the former. But government does have a role to play. What we can do is be alert, keep our eyes open to possibilities, provide expertise when we can, and keep out the bad ones.
Not an encouraging prognosis. Stores are still empty. But it's all we have to work with.