Cabelas On Tap For Walker

March 6, 2006
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WALKER — Developers are hoping to lure sporting goods giant Cabela's to a 70-acre portion of a huge 230-acre development on Walker's northwest side.

Where a Cabela's goes, other retail tends to follow.

"You'll typically see that, just because of the traffic counts we're generating," Cabela's spokesman David Draper remarked. "If you look at Dundee, Owatonna, Minn., and Kansas City, Kan. — there wasn't a lot out there before Cabela's showed up. Now there are other retailers, hotels, restaurants and service stations. One of our stores typically does attract all kinds of commercial development."

The Northwest Edge neighborhood, which is bounded by

Four Mile Road
on the north,
Bristol Avenue
on the east,
Three Mile Road
on the south and
Fruit Ridge Avenue
on the west, encompasses some 1,500 acres. Of those, 230 acres bordering I-96 and
Bristol Avenue
are owned by Walker Orchard Land Partners, which is managed by Northgate Holdings LLC. Walker Orchard also has another 65 acres of land in the vicinity under option, said Northgate's owner, Zach Bossenbroek.

"We are continuing to talk, and they continue to be interested," Bossenbroek said of the ongoing negotiations with Cabela's. "It's going to be a public private effort. We're working together to try to create enough incentives for Cabela's to decide to come to that site."

Land use guidelines in the city's updated master plan call for the Northwest Edge area to be developed in accordance with basic principles of a "traditional neighborhood development" — a new urban style development with a mixture of commercial, office and residential sites and a "village center," or downtown. Such a "New Urbanist" neighborhood has features reminiscent of urban neighborhoods of 50 to 100 years ago, where land uses are intimately blended, streets are small and densely connected, and everything is within walking distance.

According to the conceptual plan, a 70-acre portion of the property owned by the Walker Orchard group is pegged for a village center that would be "a tourist-oriented commercial area anchored by a regional, and potentially interstate, commercial draw." That's the area where a Cabela's sporting goods store may land, said Planning Director Frank Wash.

The developer submitted a rezoning application with the city Friday morning and has a special meeting with city officials scheduled for March 29, Bossenbroek said.

Cabela's is the nation's largest specialty retailer, direct mail and Internet marketer of hunting, fishing, camping and related outdoor merchandise. It had revenues of $1.8 billion in fiscal 2005. The chain has 14 stores across the country and eight more are scheduled to open soon.

The only Cabela's in Michigan is in Dundee, just southwest of Detroit. It is purported to be the No. 1 tourist attraction in Michigan, with more than five million visitors a year. The store has a 225,000-square-foot showroom that serves as an educational and entertainment attraction, featuring a décor of museum-quality animal displays, huge aquariums, and trophy animals in re-creations of their natural habitats.

A Cabela's in the proposed village center remains a distinct possibility and could have huge economic implications for the city of Walker, Bossenbroek said.

Wash said other states throw money at Cabela's to recruit them because they know they're going to get that money back long term through either sales tax or income tax. In Michigan, the developer has to pay all the expenses for road and related improvements to make a development happen.

Draper said the company looks at a number of factors in determining the site selection for a new store.

"We'll look at customer ZIP codes in our database to see how much money they spend with us every year," Draper said. "We'll look at the number of sportsmen in a state, the hunting and fishing licenses sales in the state or county, and we'll do traffic counts on a site."

Draper said a 250,000-square-foot store such as Dundee's is the largest size the company builds. Over the past several years, Cabela's has typically built stores in suburban locations, but it does have a few stores in urban centers, he noted.

"The suburban model has kind of worked out for us best, and that's pretty much our typical model," he said.

The timing of the project would fall fairly well in line with the expansion from two to six lanes of the bridge at

Walker Avenue
and I-96, and the reconfiguration of the intersection's ramps. In conjunction with the improvements, slated to start this spring, the city is designing easy access into the proposed village center site, Wash noted. He said if the retail-oriented commercial use for the village center falls through, the city would default to an entertainment commercial district, so an entertainment base would take the place of Cabela's and would be supported by other commercial uses.

Bossenbroek said that before any construction on the proposed project could begin, the company would have to seek a number of approvals and would have to deal with some wetland and environmental issues.

Northgate's developers, Trademark Property Co., of Fort Worth, in conjunction with Chicago's Urban Retail Properties Co., would develop everything associated with the village center, Bossenbroek said. Urban Retail is one of the largest managers of mall properties in the United States, with more than 30 million square feet under management.

Representatives of both Northgate and Trademark have twice discussed with the Planning Commission their conceptual plans for the village center site.

"What they've approached the city with matches fairly well to the village center concept. I know a lot of the cynics in the public have said the city is working together with the developer in this master planning process, and the developer is essentially leading the city by the tail," Wash remarked. "That's not the case at all. The city has been going through a visioning process with the public for almost a year now."

It would be a unique development for a suburb in West Michigan, Wash acknowledged. He said people who work in the biotech and life sciences sector are accustomed to and attracted to the style of neighborhood and housing proposed for the Northwest Edge. He believes that with all the synergy on Michigan Street Hill in Grand Rapids, redevelopment of the Northwest Edge area could play a part in the overall economic development of the entire region.

The Planning Commission will forward the final plan to the City Commission for approval in a couple of weeks. Wash said formalization of the master plan update will happen sometime this month.

According to Wash, Walker is just looking out for its future. The old methodology of economic development in West Michigan, and Michigan in general, is broken; communities that have all their eggs in one basket — like Walker does in the manufacturing base — are quickly reaching a point of diminishing returns when it comes to their budgets, he said. Things are fine right now, but the trend in city revenues is downward, just like the trend in the number of manufacturing jobs is downward.

"A city that runs on income tax has to change gears and reinvent itself. That's what we're doing with the updated master plan. We've identified four parts of the city and tried to bust them up into four logical pieces and plan for each piece. We're going to try to reinvent them as city centers and, hopefully, those will help reinvigorate this economy."

In addition to the Northwest Edge neighborhood, the three other neighborhoods in the city are tagged as "South Walker," which is a rural neighborhood west of Wilson Avenue adjacent to I-196; the "Northeast Side," which includes the Alpine Avenue corridor; and "Walker Central," which includes the Standale business district.

Wash thinks the village center development in the Northwest Edge area could have some other positive implications for Walker, as well.

"If this development goes in and raises the bar really high, I think you may see some migration of some of the key components of Alpine Avenue over here. If that happens and they can be accommodated in the village center, we may have the opportunity to rebuild Alpine. That's the big picture I'm really hoping people will see. If we can rebuild the land use on Alpine south of Four Mile, then we can also rebuild the traffic management there."    

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