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A town fights back against a big-box coup

There used to be a town called Acme at the intersection of Michigan Highway 72 and U.S. Route 31; now there’s a Chase bank and a pair of gas stations. Most of Acme Township’s 4,375 residents do their shopping in nearby Traverse City. The township hall is a one-story cinder-block appendage to the fire station.

But Acme has a valuable undeveloped asset: a 182-acre hay field along M-72 that vacationers pass on their way to Grand Traverse Bay, two long fingers of crystalline blue water that drop down from northern Lake Michigan. Some time ago, this field caught the attention of the Meijer corporation, a big-box grocery and discount retail chain. Meijer already had one large store on the west side of Traverse City, but it hoped to capture business on the eastern approach as well. Together with a group of investors that bought the field for $7 million in 2002, the company proposed a mammoth development called the Village at Grand Traverse and billed it as a new town center for Acme, albeit one that closely resembled a strip mall. When residents balked at the project’s size, the town government asked that the plans be scaled back.

“We all know business has to be here,” said Ron Hardin, a member of the town board, “but this all started with, Does this have to be so fucking big?”

What Meijer did in response was unusual: it sued the town officials it felt were standing in its way and then secretly paid for a campaign to throw them out of office.

I drove past the township hall in Acme two times before I spotted it. Inside the dim, low-ceilinged building I met the town clerk, Dorothy Dunville, an intense woman with long black hair and dark-framed glasses. She is also the founder of the Acme Heritage Society; ushering me into her minuscule office, she showed me pictures of Acme as it once was: the original township hall, where they used to project movies onto the side of the building; the Stony Hollow Hut, a roadside joint known for its homemade pies, which was later replaced by a McDonald’s; the general store at the main intersection, where people used to gather on the porch after church, and in whose place one of the gas stations now stands.

In 2005 the town lost its school, itself a replacement for the handsome brick building next to the firehouse that was taken over by a Masonic lodge. Though drab, the new school had been a hub of activity—there were arts-and-crafts shows, a carefully tended flower bed in summer, an ice rink in winter. But Acme is short on kids: in the school’s final year there were fewer than 300 enrolled. The closing of the school, Dunville said, “killed the whole area.”

I heard a similar complaint from Denny Rohn, an interior decorator from Grand Rapids, who’s been coming her whole life to her family’s second home in Acme, out past a golf resort and the cherry orchards on the northern end of town. A glamorous woman in her mid-fifties, Rohn gazed out at her husband working on his new boat as she recalled Acme’s glory days. “There was the bait shop, and the little stone building where the McDonald’s is now, and the lilac parades,” she said. “It all sort of got whittled away. I’m not sure people were paying attention. But we’ve lost it all.”

Several years ago, as residents began to debate the proposed construction of a new sewage plant, Rohn joined a group calling itself the Concerned Citizens of Acme Township. “We came together for environmental stuff,” she said. “We were not at all seeing what we were going to get ourselves into.” It would be Concerned Citizens that led the fight against Meijer.

Others, such as Louie Griffith, thought the yearning of people like Rohn for an Acme free of large chains was hogwash—wishful thinking that could come at the cost of new jobs for the area. Griffith runs a tool-and-die shop out of his garage. When I found him at home one afternoon, there were ten vehicles scattered around his yard, among them two bulldozers, a flatbed truck, an RV, and the Grand Am he leaned on as we spoke. Sure, he said, there had been square dances in town and he and his neighbors had often closed off their street for parties, but those days were gone. Acme, he said, “is an intersection, that’s all it is anymore. It was a town, but not now.” Many of the project’s detractors were transplants to the area, and he thought they were out of touch with what was possible in Acme. “They can say what they want about big box, but it’s big box that operates the nation.”

Hendrik Meijer opened his first grocery store during the Great Depression. In the early 1960s, he pioneered the supercenter, which combined grocery and discounted general merchandise. These days the company is widely considered to be the enlightened alternative to Walmart. It has stayed in the family—run first by Hendrik’s son Fred, then by his grandsons Hank and Doug. The Meijers spend heavily on philanthropy: Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids, for example, is one of the world’s most prominent sculpture collections. And the Meijers benefit by comparison with the families that make up the rest of the oligopoly that dominates western Michigan—the DeVos family, of Amway fame, which is linked by marriage to the Princes, of the company formerly known as Blackwater. One Acme resident recalled how, many years ago, she was connected directly to Fred Meijer when she called with a complaint.

Yet a company does not grow to Meijer’s size—about 200 stores across the Midwest, 74,000 employees, and more than $14 billion in annual revenue—by hewing to Old World gentility. Hank Meijer admitted as much in the 1987 afterword to Thrifty Years, his memoir about the company’s founding:

When residents of a conservative suburb of Grand Rapids blamed Fred Meijer a few years after Hendrik’s death for the decision to open their Meijer store on Sundays, they did not realize that the seeds of such a move had been sown long before. A willingness to court controversy for customer convenience always went hand in hand with a commitment to low prices and a clean, well-lighted place to shop.

Hank’s philosophy seemed to inform Meijer’s actions in Acme. At first residents were open to the idea of the store, if the project could be done right. Many wanted the developers to take a New Urbanist approach, building on a street grid with housing and sidewalks alongside the retail space. But the plans disappointed them: more square feet of commercial space than in all of downtown Traverse City (population 15,000), with housing and “village” touches like a playground, a hotel, and a park to be delayed until a later phase. The development was expected to draw 34,000 visitors a day, doubling traffic on M-72.

The Concerned Citizens sued, saying the project was out of line with Acme’s master plan. In the fall of 2004, the town elected a new board, one that ran on a slow-growth platform. Many of the new board’s members had been involved with Concerned Citizens. They tabled the project awaiting the outcome of the lawsuit.

Meijer reacted quickly. The company and the investors in the Village at Grand Traverse—Acme resident Jim Goss, who’d made his money in beer distribution; Jeffrey Anderson, a Cincinnati mall developer; and Steve Smith, a Lansing-area owner of a national cinema chain—sued four members of the board and four members of the town’s planning commission. The suits sought unlimited damages, alleging that the officials had violated conflict-of-interest laws because they had ruled on the project despite belonging to Concerned Citizens.

The suits succeeded in intimidating most of the officials. “Can you imagine the stress of a multimillion-dollar corporation coming after everything you own?” said Hardin, who designs fire-suppression systems for a living. Meijer had six lawyers from the Detroit-based firm Dickinson Wright assigned to the case. “It was a very sophisticated, very high-power, high-volume operation,” said Chris Bzdok, the town’s counsel at the time—“a relentless, multifront campaign of harassment and intimidation waged against people who are essentially your friends and neighbors who volunteer to take a turn at the oars for their community.”

Among those the attorneys singled out was Bill Boltres, the town treasurer. An avid hunter with a heavy build and bags under his eyes, Boltres said he had never been a member of Concerned Citizens. A staunch conservative, he took the lawsuit’s claim that he was part of the group as an affront. In 2006 he filed his own suit against Meijer, alleging—with a doctor’s affidavit to back him up—that the stress from Meijer’s lawsuit had contributed to his heart attack in April 2005.

“It irritated the hell out of me when they lied about me being a member” of Concerned Citizens, Boltres said in a 2007 deposition. “I perceive [the group] as being, excuse my language, but just a bunch of tree huggers, and that’s unfair, but that’s my personality, and I’m just not—you know, that’s not me. I mean, I’m pro-business.”

All the suits were eventually tossed out or withdrawn, but the lawyers for Meijer and the investors held nothing back in fighting Boltres’s suit. After learning that he had filed for bankruptcy in 2005 to shield his wife from his medical bills—he was also suffering from lung cancer—the investors bought $15,032 worth of his debts, forcing him to put his suit on hold. They subpoenaed his medical records and his credit card bills to determine whether his heart troubles had made him as housebound as he claimed. At one particularly lengthy deposition, he collapsed into tears, exhausted.

In January 2005, Acme’s new board instituted a nine-month moratorium on the construction of stores larger than 50,000 square feet. Pro-Meijer residents, calling themselves Acme Taxpayers for Responsible Government, launched a referendum campaign against the ban. The moratorium would not have affected the Village project—that was still being litigated—but would have applied to a sixty-acre field, east of the Village site along M-72, that Meijer owned and on which it was now proposing to build a stand-alone supercenter as a backup if the Village lawyers lost in court.

The pro-Meijer residents made signs, began a direct-mail campaign, and sent letters to the editor of the Traverse City Record-Eagle. And when the referendum votes were counted in August 2005, their side eked out a victory: 907 to 900. The board approved Meijer’s plans for the stand-alone store, but with conditions—that it close at midnight and that the planned gas pumps be moved. Meijer fought the restrictions. In June 2006, Scott Nowakowski, Meijer’s director of real estate, sent an email to Bill Kurtz, the town supervisor:

After 19 months of this current administration we can only conclude, that you, other township officials and [the Concerned Citizens] have plotted and schemed to deny and strip Meijer and [the Village investors] of our basic property rights. In case you forgot, these are rights given to all property owners by the Constitution of the United States. . . . In an effort to push forward your own personal agendas you have been poor stewards for the residents of Acme and are taking the township (and yourselves) down a very dark path.

In October 2006, pro-Meijer residents started a second campaign, filing a petition to remove the town board from office. A recall election was scheduled for February 2007. There were mailings that slammed the board for engaging in so many lawsuits that the town lost its liability insurance. There was a website that touted Meijer’s benefits, including the 450 jobs and $350,000 in annual property taxes (nearly half of Acme’s yearly budget) the store would bring. There were door-to-door deliveries of leaflets that declared, under the heading new leadership for acme township, “At midnight you can buy beer, but not cough syrup or diapers in Acme Township.” Gene Veliquette, the owner of a cherry-processing plant in town, wrote an open letter to the residents of Acme saying, “If one of the best companies in America wants to invest in our community, I believe that is a compliment. Why is our township board kicking a gift horse in the mouth?”

The campaign was orchestrated by Meijer. Documents released to Bill Boltres’s lawyer, Grant Parsons, during pretrial discovery included a cache of invoices from Seyferth, Spaulding, Tennyson, a large Grand Rapids public-relations firm, to Dickinson Wright, Meijer’s law firm. There were billing records for “Acme Strategy” sessions, for research on “election guidelines,” for the creation of the website and the talking points fed to Acme Taxpayers for Responsible Government and the Acme Recall Committee—all ultimately paid for by Meijer. There were charges for frequent phone calls with Meijer executives—mostly with Nowakowski but also with Stacie Behler, the company’s vice president for corporate communications. There were also many exchanges with Acme residents—with Goss, the local investor (Would residents know what “dereliction” meant? asked one email from the PR firm); with Louie Griffith, who served as treasurer of the Acme Recall Committee (Griffith denies receiving help from the PR firm); with Noelle Knopf, a member of the original pro-Meijer town board; and with Ron Reinhold, a leader of the Responsible Government group.

The paperwork was fastidious. Ninety minutes developing voter lists cost Meijer $187.50. Writing and editing two handouts for a community meeting cost $406.25. Calls to update Goss and Nowakowski on signature collecting cost $62.50, as did a half hour with Goss about “next steps for petitions—lists, strategy, letters, etc.” Editing the letter from Veliquette, the cherry processor, cost $187.50.

Also in the documents were the PR firm’s drafts of campaign materials that would later be distributed to Acme voters. The firm did leave some decisions up to its local allies: one letter to voters was signed “Acme Citizens Who Care Committee (or whatever ballot committee ame you choose).”

Despite Meijer’s efforts, the recall failed: the board remained intact and was reelected in 2008. Boltres settled his suit against Meijer for $2 million and pursued a separate one against the developers. Six other officials who had been targeted followed his lead, with most settling for far less—$300,000 each, which came to about $135,000 after legal fees and taxes. Although the Michigan Court of Appeals had decided that the Village development was legal under Acme’s master plan, the project fell into limbo while the various settlements were worked out.

The story of Meijer’s attempt to overthrow Acme’s government might have gotten no further than the town limits, but Acme was in an unusual spot—in the coverage area of a small newspaper that, despite all the woes of local journalism, was still doing aggressive reporting. After Grant Parsons turned up the evidence of Meijer’s role in the recall campaign, the Traverse City Record-Eagle published dozens of articles holding the company to account. One of the paper’s reporters, Brian McGillivary, and his editor, Mike Tyree, stayed on the story for months.

In late 2008, Meijer delivered a reprisal: it pulled its Sunday ad circular, and with it more than $250,000 in annual revenue for the paper. Meijer gave the circular to the Grand Traverse Insider, a weekly founded earlier that year that was little more than a few sunny dispatches wrapped around advertising. Shrinking ad revenues at the Record-Eagle, led by the Meijer loss, forced it to trim its staff by six, to twenty-eight.

Bill Thomas, who recently retired as the paper’s editor in chief, said what irked him most about what he called the “corporate coup d’état” in Acme was that it had not provoked more outrage from readers—or more attention statewide. “If you care about democracy, you care about this story,” he said. “But a certain portion of the population feels that whatever corporate America does is good, that people who complained [in Acme] had no right to get in the way.”

After the articles about the recall campaign were published, a lawyer for Meijer admitted to Terri Lynn Land, Michigan’s secretary of state, that “certain expenditures that should have been made by the Meijer PAC were in fact made by Meijer, Inc. directly”—in violation of Michigan’s law banning direct corporate spending on campaigns. Meijer also disclosed that secret spending had occurred for the 2005 anti-moratorium campaign; corporate spending on a referendum was allowed, but Meijer had failed to report it as required. In an accompanying statement, Meijer said that it “accepts full responsibility and we apologize for the violation of trust these actions caused.”

Actually, responsibility settled on a fall guy: Nowakowski, Meijer’s real estate director. In court documents, he and Meijer’s attorneys, including its general counsel, said the push against Acme officials was his idea, and that he had received help from Tim Stoepker, a lawyer at Dickinson Wright. The company’s executives claimed to have had no knowledge of the campaign.

During Boltres’s case, Meijer lawyers fiercely resisted Parsons’s attempts to subpoena Hank Meijer, which only increased suspicions that responsibility went higher than the company was letting on. “Meijer’s a top-down organization. It’s hard to believe that it didn’t come down from the top,” said Wayne Kladder, a retired teacher who replaced Kurtz as town supervisor in 2007. Judge Philip Rodgers, who presided over the Meijer-related proceedings in Grand Traverse County circuit court, was also skeptical, saying it was hard to believe that “Mr. Nowakowski and Mr. Stoepker went off on their own frolicking detour.”

No one from the company would speak to me about this case. Stacie Behler did not return repeated calls, nor did the company’s spokesman. Stoepker declined to comment, as did Nowakowski, who has since left Meijer for a Grand Rapids commercial real estate firm.

One person spoke freely: Ginny Seyferth, of Seyferth, Spaulding, Tennyson. A former Amoco and Amway spokeswoman, Seyferth said her PR firm had only been an “extra pair of hands” assisting Acme residents. “I remember one guy called up and said, ‘I don’t write really well. Can you put down my words on paper so I don’t sound so stupid like they call me in Traverse City?’ That’s the sad story here. These were grassroots citizens who wanted something in their hometown—that was their dream.” Meijer’s only mistake, she said, was its failure to disclose the PR spending. “This was an accounting error,” she said. “No one did anything wrong except the way they filed their bills.” Her assessment was echoed by some of Acme’s pro-Meijer residents. “We were all rookies,” said Ron Reinhold. “We didn’t know squat about how to fight something like that. So we did get advice from the PR firm.”

But Seyferth’s story diverged in one regard from Meijer’s. There was no question, she said, that her firm had been acting on behalf of the entire company, not just on behalf of one rogue employee or outside lawyer. “It was real estate, PR, and legal that were all working together hand in hand,” she said.

After the Record-Eagle’s articles appeared, Al Schneider, Grand Traverse County’s prosecutor and an Acme resident, opened an investigation into felony violations of campaign-finance law, which would have allowed him to subpoena Meijer executives. The company had other ideas. In May 2008, Terri Lynn Land’s office reached a “conciliation agreement” with Meijer. The company would pay the state of Michigan $190,138 in fines for its spending on the two elections, which Land said had totaled $55,437.56 for the recall and $46,463.69 for the moratorium vote. The agreement’s key line was on its penultimate page: it would “constitute a complete bar to any further action against Meijer, Inc.” The state’s attorney general at the time, Mike Cox, relinquished his authority to investigate further. The Record-Eagle pointed out that he and Land, both Republicans, had received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Meijer.

Schneider pressed on, arguing up through the Michigan courts that the secretary of state could not block a prosecutor from investigating criminal violations. At the same time, though, another case was working its way through the system at a far higher level.

In 2008, a conservative group called Citizens United appealed a federal district-court ruling that it could not air a pay-per-view documentary attacking Hillary Clinton because the film amounted to an unlawful campaign advertisement. The group’s lawyer argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that the ruling infringed on the group’s free-speech rights. On January 21, 2010, by a vote of five to four, the high court sided with Citizens United in a ruling of astonishing breadth: not only should the film have been allowed to air, but corporate spending on elections was a form of speech and was thus protected under the First Amendment.

Just like that, Al Schneider’s case was dead. Michigan’s law against corporate spending on elections was now unconstitutional, which meant that there was no more felony charge at stake, and thus no more possibility to subpoena Meijer executives. In an instant, Acme had become an early testing ground for a post–Citizens United America, one in which the people and institutions that could once challenge the power of big business—individual citizens, the press, the government itself—seem hopelessly outmatched.

When I spoke with Schneider, a trim man in his early sixties with an old-fashioned buzz cut, he played down the defeat, saying he wasn’t going to criticize Citizens United but admitting that he “would’ve liked if they’d postponed it till after I was done.” He also said he doesn’t hold any grudges against Meijer: “My wife doesn’t want a Meijer store, but”—his voice fell to a stage whisper—“we could use a Meijer.” Why? He smiled. “Meijer has great produce.”

Philip Rodgers, the local judge, was more outspoken about the Supreme Court’s ruling. “The corporation is essential to capitalism,” he told me. “But corporations aren’t people in reality. Corporations don’t vote. They don’t have the opportunity to fill out a ballot. . . . And when you give corporations unfettered discretion to pour money into elections, I think it diminishes the role of the individual voter and individual contributions. It dwarfs the contributions we can make.”

Rodgers eventually took the only step still at his disposal, requesting that a state commission investigate whether Stoepker, the former Meijer lawyer, had perjured himself when he said under oath in 2007 that he knew othing of Meijer’s role in the Acme elections.

With Schneider’s path blocked, Meijer and the investors proceeded as if nothing had happened: they resubmitted their plans for the Village. And they still had their supporters. One evening, I attended a fire-department fund-raiser—a spaghetti dinner in the Masonic hall—and found a seat at a table where another diner, Steve Sincic, began arguing with those around him about the Village project. “Just think about it,” he said. “We’d have a movie theater on this side of town again. We’d have restaurants on this side of town again.” Asked about Meijer’s behavior, Sincic, a salvage-yard owner, waved his hand. “Corporations spend money across the nation, at all levels,” he said. “This is no different. They’re just supporting the campaign to put back in the people who were going to let them do what they wanted to do.”

Meijer’s critics, meanwhile, were still trying to imagine a better future for Acme. A town-board meeting I attended began with a presentation by two men from a smart-growth group. They had been invited by Erick Takayama, a board member and landscape designer who has lived in the Acme area for about twenty years. The presenters rattled on about “benchmarks,” “convergence,” “facilitation,” and “stakeholders” as a projector flashed images from Copenhagen, New York, and other paragons of pedestrian-friendly density. “The focus is on people instead of cars,” said one presenter. “Instead of asking how do we get more cars into our space, it’s how do we get people to be more happy.”

Squirming next to me was Jim Goss, the local partner on the Village team. After the meeting, he held forth about how inane he found the presentation. “They talk about parking lots. Well, we’re not in an urbanized area. You have to drive there to get there.”

Later, I met with Takayama at his house. He talked excitedly about new plans to turn the shoreline near the main intersection into a park, and how that might create a town center of sorts. He noted that the Village plans were little changed, but with public hearings coming up, he hinted that the fight might be winding down. “I don’t know if we’re getting tired or beat up from all the years of being called naysayers,” he said. “You can’t stop development, but you can do your best to make it look like good development.”

Several months later, on February 23, 2012, the town board of Acme voted unanimously to approve the Village at Grand Traverse.

“In the end it was easier to go along with it than to keep fighting it over every little thing,” Ron Hardin said to me. “And there was a big fatigue factor involved for everyone.”

All that remained was the matter of finding a new name for the Village at Grand Traverse—it turned out that a project to redevelop a former hospital on the other side of Traverse City had a similar name. One of the developers told the Record-Eagle that the rechristening would have Acme’s full input: “We’ll probably have a contest or something to involve the whole community in naming it.”

Bill Boltres, the former town treasurer, died in hospice care while I was visiting Acme. At his memorial service several weeks later, Wayne Kladder, the new supervisor, accepted an invitation to speak.

“Bill often seemed bored at those early meetings, kind of nodding away—until something happened,” Kladder said. “He heard something in his mind that he didn’t agree with, something that was wrong. That woke Bill up like a lion waking up in the middle of Africa. He fought for what was right and he fought hard. He taught me the strength to stand up and do what was right.”

The minister, Gary Hogue, picked up the thread. “Bill had no intention of being the center of a whirling controversy,” he said, but “when he discovered that that injustice was taking place in Acme Township, he pursued it, not worrying about what other people would think, but just trying to get to the bottom of it. And his perseverance, his patience, his courage in standing up to what he thought was a deep injustice eventually led to some very illuminating aspects of life that most of us prefer to ignore: the power of big corporations to run over little people and little parts of the government. . . . It takes a man with some courage and some sense that there’s a higher standard, that just because some entity says this is the way it’s going to be doesn’t mean it’s right.”

After the service, I drove to Traverse City’s Meijer, which, I saw as I pulled up, was almost identical to the one planned for Acme. It was roughly the same size—more than 200,000 square feet—and had the same cupolas along the roofline, the same brick inlay over concrete.

I parked in a distant corner of the nearly full lot. Inside, there were forty-two checkout lanes; they stretched very far, but not far enough to fill the store’s breadth. I headed first to the renowned produce section, aisles of greens covered with fresh water droplets: Napa cabbage, rapini, mo qua squash, daikon radish, cebollita onions, baby green kohlrabi, bok choy, gai choy. Then I wandered into general merchandise. Iron Man 2 decorative pillows were $5.19, the All-Power 2200 PSI Pressure Washer was $199.99, and on a 46″ Sony Bravia LCD TV ($1,148) a blonde in a revealing blue top was delivering the weather forecast.

Back outside, I chatted with some shoppers. I asked Tamara Thaxton, whose Saturn Vue had a colorful sticker—live light, love large, make the world a beautiful peaceful place—why she shopped at Meijer despite what had happened in Acme. She shrugged. “Politics,” she said. “That stuff happens everywhere. It’s just that usually people don’t find out about it.”

Matt Nieman, a gallery owner who was loading jugs of water into his Mercedes SUV, had also heard about what happened in Acme. “I was moderately bothered but not to the point, sad to say, that I wouldn’t take advantage of the pricing here,” he said. He offered a sheepish smile. “I wish I had deeper convictions.”

Those who witnessed Meijer’s handiwork in Acme up close aren’t as noncommittal. Denny Rohn, the interior designer who vacations in Acme, told me: “I pick paint colors for a living. I’ve never been a huge liberal. I’ve always been pretty middle-of-the-road. But watching what our governments do, whether local or state or national, it’s really lost its ‘about the people.’ It’s about the corporations. That’s what this democracy’s becoming.” She added: “You feel like they got away with it, that they’ll do it again and it’ll keep happening. It was nothing to them.”

Ron Hardin was amazed that others in Acme still supported Meijer. “That’s what blows me away. It’s okay that they destroy the law. . . . As long as they saved five cents on green beans, everyone was fine with it. Before, I was in that camp of ‘If it’s not happening to me why should I even care?’ Well, I better care, because otherwise who’s going to care when it’s happening to me? People wake up one day and say, ‘When did this happen? When I was sleeping.’ It’s gotten to the point where I don’t think you can sleep. You have to be awake all the time.”

is a senior editor of The New Republic and a former reporter for the Washington Post.

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October 2012

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