Only a few manufacturing facilities in the world measure over a million square feet. These marvels of modern industrialism are massive operations, and often heavily impact local economies. So when the residents of Vernon Township, a quiet agricultural community in Shiawassee County, heard rumors that an unknown company wanted to build a 24 million square foot manufacturing facility right next door, they naturally had some questions.
But local officials offered few answers. Citing non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from revealing most details, neither the township nor the city of Durand, the town nestled in the middle of the Vernon Township, have unveiled the identity of the company, or what type of facility it would be.
The few details they did announce in a June township meeting were staggering. The estimated cost of the facility is $5 billion. It would provide 800 jobs, cover an area of more than four-fifths of a mile, and require 10.5 million construction hours to complete.
“That is mind-boggling for anyone living in this area, to have that in your front or back yard,” said Dr. William Foster, a veterinarian in Vernon Township and president of Greater Durand Area Citizens for Responsible Growth. The group formed in recent weeks in opposition to Project Tim, the development’s nickname (no one knows where the name came from), and elected Foster their leader.
Foster said he and fellow residents aren’t against economic development in the area, but do have serious concerns about the size and scope of the facility itself.
“The Shiawassee County master plan’s overarching theme is the preservation of agriculture in Shiawassee County,” Foster said. “Something of this scale would definitely alter the nature of Vernon Township.”
The first rumblings came in late May, when a local realty company invited a select group of landowners in Vernon Township to a closed-door meeting. The realtor was representing an unnamed developer, and offering purchasing options for land northeast of Durand. Soon word spread through local media, sparking concerns from some residents.
Rex LaMore is the director of Michigan State University’s Center for Community and Economic Development. Building such a facility in a small, rural community could have a major effect on quality of life there, LaMore said.
“The scale of this proposed development, at least in the way it’s being articulated, suggests that it will cause a substantial transformation of the character of the community,” LaMore said.
And the secrecy surrounding the process has just served to frustrate residents further.
“We’re in the dark, and we feel that our elected officials should give us this information,” Foster said. “This delicate back and forth, [in which] they can’t say anything, makes it difficult for us to make decisions on what we want to do with our lives.”
The situation raises tough questions about the proper relationship between residents and their local elected officials. Is it the local government’s first duty to keep the people informed, or do they have the right to pursue economic opportunities that could benefit the area, even if that means sacrificing transparency?
Vernon Township Supervisor Bert DeClerg did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Durand City Manager Colleen O’Toole provided Michigan Radio with the following statement:
“Our community is very fortunate to be considered as a location for this opportunity. Thus far, the developers have displayed a commitment to being environmentally conscious, hiring veterans and local trades people, sourcing materials from other Michigan suppliers, and in their own words, being a ‘great neighbor.’ We look forward to a full public participation process in the near future, and to working with representatives in neighboring communities to ensure that the final project benefits the region as a whole.”
In defense of local officials, LaMore said, this strategy of secrecy actually saves taxpayers money in the long run. Large facilities like the one proposed in Project Tim often require at least a minimal amount of public investment, such as building a new road or another change to the landscape. If competitors get wind of a major deal, they’ll swoop in and cause prices to rise, which in turn could raise the price tag for the public.
“That’s the public interest that is served in keeping this kind of information, for a certain period of time, private,” LaMore said.
The project is currently in limbo, as the community waits to see if the mystery developer will successfully secure enough land from local landowners to move onto the zoning phase. That’s likely when the public would have a chance to directly influence the project, LaMore said.
But technically, the only way local officials are held accountable is at the ballot box — they must decide whether or not going against public opinion would jeopardize a bid for re-election.
“While public input generally is taken,” LaMore said, “public elected officials can decide to not listen to that input if they don’t believe it’s in the best interests of the community.”
LaMore said citizens could challenge the rezoning of the land in court, if they thought the change was awarded unfairly, but U.S. law strongly favors private landowners, and the move wouldn’t be likely to succeed in halting the project.
But Foster and other residents who share his views just can’t see a way this doesn’t negatively affect them.
“This would be such a radical departure from what we’re used to here, it would just totally change the nature of where we physically live,” Foster said. “For the residents that live around here, that’s a game changer, a game-breaker if you will.”