One of the phrases sometimes used to describe what is great about life Up North is “small town character.” What that means is a little vague, but the real estate market generally proves it is valuable: homes in many villages and cities up here are worth more every year.
Acme Township is a rural community that has no village. In fact, it is not much of a destination at all, unless you are going to the Grand Traverse Resort. Acme is mostly farmland with a few businesses along US-31 and M-72 and, of course, that glass tower reaching 17 stories into the sky.
Jeff Henley says it’s too bad people think of Acme as a gateway to Traverse City.
“Why can’t we make Acme a place to stop?” he wonders. “Instead of having to go through a gateway to get to something. Maybe you’re already there. Just look around.”
That question has been asked in Acme Township for at least 20 years now. Back in the 1990s, a survey showed residents wanted some kind of town center or village, like Suttons Bay or Elk Rapids.
In 2003, a group came forward with a plan to convert 180 acres of farmland into The Village at Grand Traverse.
The Village wouldn’t be quite like Elk Rapids, though. One of the planners hired for the project, Steve Hayward, explained on Interlochen Public Radio in 2004 that those towns were built before cars.
“Now you need to focus on the primary mode of transportation, which is the automobile,” Hayward said.
The Village at Grand Traverse would be what Hayward called a “lifestyle center,” a place to live, work and play with ample parking. He said it would also have a four- to six-block area that would feel like a downtown with storefronts right up on sidewalks, trees, gaslights and parking on the street.
“That’s inherent to our plan,” he said.
But the first phase of The Village plan did not involve sidewalk storefronts or tree lined streets.
It was a new Meijer store--200,000 square feet of affordable merchandise. Later phases could include hundreds of homes, a shopping mall and even a hotel.
The Village at Grand Traverse looked like a giant strip mall to people like Denny Rohn.
“No one had any idea that the survey they’d filled out in 1996 … would bring a development of this size,” says Rohn. “That just wasn’t in anyone’s head.”
Rohn says it was the scale that astonished people; more than a million square feet of commercial space if everything is built. It would equal all the commercial space in downtown Traverse City in a township of a little more than 4,300 people.
Surprise turned into controversy and legal battles. Along the way, Meijer illegally financed a recall campaign of the Acme Township board. So the company, based near Grand Rapids, was fined $190,000 by the State of Michigan.
Meijer persisted and last year construction of the new store was underway when heavy rains came in late September. The flooding made news all over Michigan when runoff from the construction site made Acme Creek milky brown and a cloud flowed out into Grand Traverse Bay.
Rohn says it was her greatest fear come true.
“They cut open the earth and the Bay was filled with clay sediment,” she says. “Everyone saw it.”
A new attitude at township hall
Plenty of people in and around Acme Township are ready to welcome Meijer.
Jeff Henley lives in Whitewater Township and says it will save him trips to Traverse City, trips that can take him 30 minutes, one way, in traffic.
“With Meijer, that’s going to save me from having to drive across town,” he says.
And Jay Zollinger says that’s why he was elected township supervisor in 2012. Zollinger thinks a majority of folks in the area are happy to see new development.
“I think one of the reasons I got elected, and some of the others, was that the people said, ‘We do want something different. We do want a different group. We do want a different way,’” he says.
Zollinger says the whole village development is well planned and will protect farmland in Acme Township by concentrating growth in one spot.
Because it is set back off the highway with its own connector roads, he says that stretch of M-72 won’t become congested like South Airport Road.
And he doesn’t see any threat to the water. He doesn’t think the runoff during last year’s rains did any real damage.
“It looked bad,” he admits. “But there’s been no fish kill reported, no damage, no long-term damage.”
Where's the village?
Meijer is the first phase of The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. But at the moment, there are no approved plans for a second. That means there are no immediate plans for the actual village that has been discussed for two decades in Acme Township, although the gateway into Meijer does include the street lamps that look like gas lights for a downtown.
Critics of the project have questioned whether the developers want to build a walkable community that offers the charms of small town living.
And, in fact, one of the changes recently made to the plan was to drop some sidewalks from a corner of the development where homes go.
But Jay Zollinger says they want to build a village.
“I think they really want to do that,” he says. “I think they understand the benefit of that in the marketplace. You know, the marketplace drives a lot of things.”
In Acme Township the ballot box has also driven a lot of things. Next year, Jay Zollinger’s seat will be open in the general election along with every other board seat. Residents of Acme who are unhappy with the pace and scale of development are gearing up to challenge the incumbents.