WHITEHALL, Mich. (WOOD) - Whitehall residents gathered Friday to protest the proposed construction of a WalMart store in Muskegon County.
WalMart officials told 24 Hour News 8 on Friday that the company is planning to build a 126,000 square foot facility near the intersection of U.S. 31 near Holton Whitehall Road in Whitehall Township. According to Daniel Morales, WalMart's Director of Communications, a WalMart is scheduled to open on that plot of land in early 2015.
Since those plans were announced, dozens of people have opposed the proposed store.
Brian Bepristis, an organizer of protests against the mega store, said concerned citizens and small business owners have packed township supervisor meetings, as well as meetings for surrounding cities and townships.
"We'll do whatever we can to urge the township to realize we don't want it here," said Bepristis. "You're elected officials. You should do what the people want."
Bepristis was one of the organizers of Friday's roadside protest.
"The more people that really realize what kind of an impact bringing a WalMart here will do, the better," said Bepristis. "This is a small, quiet town. We like it that way. We want it to stay. We're here to tell WalMart we don't want you."
The protest was held in front of one of Whitehall's quintessential family owned small businesses, the Dog 'N Suds Drive-In.
Protestors hoisted signs for about an hour, garnering dozens of honks from cars passing by.
Some of those who packed the protest were small business owners like Dave Hosticka, the owner of Dog 'N Suds. The drive-in has been owned by Hosticka's family since 1965.
"We have seen some of the other big corporate chains move into this town and seen the effects that they've had on some of the local businesses," said Hosticka. " There's been a lot of efforts to rebuild and fortify the local downtown business districts because we have a lot of summer residents that have had cottages on the lakefront -- three and four generations -- and they come here to get away from all the big city stuff."
Hosticka went on to say, "It's not that we don't welcome development, we don't welcome development that's going to tip business to the other side of the highway."
Mitch Johnson, the owner of Johnson's Great Outdoors, compared their battle to a Biblical one.
"It's like David and Goliath," said Johnson. "You're fighting a huge person; it's gonna be tough, it's an uphill battle."
WalMart responded to 24 Hour News 8's requests for comment on Friday with an email. Daniel Morales wrote that the store will employ about 300 people, and that the site is appropriately zoned.
The email went on to comment a little more specifically about the protests the store's announcement have inspired.
"The customer voice is clear and demonstrated every time we open a new location as thousands of local residents show their support by shopping our store....all over Michigan and around the country, our stores are magnets for growth and development and the small businesses that surround a WalMart generally have products and services we don't offer or are strong in areas where we don't compete. From restaurants, salons, banks, and florists to bookstores, specialty grocers and wine & spirits shops, there are dozens of small business categories near our stores."
24 Hour News 8 also tracked down Whitehall Township supervisor Chuck Schmitigal at his home Friday. Schmitigal did not want to talk on camera with 24 Hour News 8, and actually insisted the camera be placed at the end of his driveway, about 15 feet away.
Schmitigal said WalMart has told the township they are interested in building on that plot of land, but he said they haven't yet seen any sketches as to what the store may look like. He claimed he does not have an opinion one way or the other about WalMart coming to the area.
He went on to say that the mega store doesn't own the piece of land, it's rather owned by a private individual.
Schmitigal said the area WalMart has expressed interest in is zoned for commercial properties. Right now that area is an undeveloped, wooded area.
He also said that as long as WalMart follows the established process to build, the township would have to let the company build on the site.
"By law we have to [let them build], we could deny it but then we could be sued," said Schmitigal.
Schmitigal said this is the first big box store attempting to enter the township, and so it's a rather new process for them; one he assumes will be a fairly long process.
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