Throughout the region, tourism is an important part of the economy. Families travel far and wide to visit historical sites, cultural institutions, and favorite recreation spots. But a relatively new part of the landscape is drawing people in for a single purpose: to shop. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sarah Hulett reports on how the trend is affecting land use patterns:
Throughout the region, tourism is an important part of the economy. Families travel
far and wide to visit historical sites, cultural institutions, and favorite recreation
spots. But a relatively new part of the landscape is drawing people in for a single purpose: to
shop. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sarah Hulett reports on how the trend is affecting
land use patterns:
Brad Brinker is in Michigan for the day to take in the sights. He flew his plane from Pennsylvania
to Dundee, in the southeast corner of Michigan. Now he’s standing next to a waterfall that spills
into a pond filled with trout and aquatic plants.
“We were always impressed by the size of the mountain and the animals they have. That’s why
The mountain is fake. The water? Pumped in. The animals? Stuffed.
This is Cabela’s – a 225-thousand-square-foot retail temple to the outdoors. It’s the home of 65-
thousand gallons of aquariums, dozens of game animals like caribou and mountain lions. There’s
a gun library, and acres of fishing equipment and hunting gear.
“Cabela’s considers itself a tourist attraction as well as retail. And in all of our major sites, we’ve
become one if not the major tourist attraction in the state.”
Steve Collins is the operations manager for Cabela’s. He says the strategy for drawing tourists and
shoppers hinges on careful placement of the store.
“What we try to do is make them destination stores, so people have to go out of their way a little
bit to get there. But once they get there they’re very easy to find. We’re not in the middle of a
mall. We’re not in the middle of town where you have to try and find us. Once you get down that
thoroughfare, we’re usually right at the exit. You can’t miss us.”
Michigan’s Cabela’s store IS easy to spot. You can see two 20-foot-tall bronze grizzlies from the
highway, locked in battle above a vast expanse of parking lot. The five-acre store was built to
look like a massive log cabin. It sits on a sweep of what used to be farmland. A U.S. highway
feeds thousands of cars a day onto its property.
It’s a familiar strategy for big-box retailers such as Home Depot and Wal-Mart. Land is generally
cheaper and easier to acquire in rural areas. And some of these superstores and outlet malls have
become destinations not just for shoppers, but for tourists. George Zimmerman directs Michigan’s
“I think in the last ten years, on the national level, the Mall of America is an example of that.
Certainly the outlet mall boom is a big part of it. That certainly was a key point as far as retailing
as a destination, when those started popping up around the country.”
But superstores and outlet malls give environmentalists headaches. They say stores that set up
shop in undeveloped areas contribute to sprawl patterns that require expensive infrastructure.
They can also sap resources from nearby cities and towns. Although the business association near
Cabela’s Michigan store says the retailer has actually helped bring shoppers into the downtown
area, five miles away.
Victoria Pebbles works on sustainable development issues for the Great Lakes Commission.
Pebbles says there need to be disincentives for stores to locate in rural areas.
“If there are disincentives, for example, through farmland protection programs and protection of
natural features and cultural resources that are in our rural areas, then you can help to tip the
scales a little bit.”
Pebbles says right now, there are few restrictions on developing farmland into shopping malls.
Some states – such as Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania – have set aside money to help
local governments better coordinate land use planning. And Michigan recently set up a task force
that will make land use policy recommendations to its Legislature.
(bring up Cabela’s parking lot sound)
In the meantime, it looks as though retailers will continue to look for cheap land with easy access
to highways. Cabela’s plans to open its fifth store in the Great Lakes region this fall. Its
Pennsylvania store will be easy to spot, perched on a hundred acres right off I-78 and Route 61.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Sarah Hulett.