City's legal action brought Kmart to area

Courtesy of the Anuta Research Center With Tempo, an anchor at one end, and Kmart, a pillar at the other end, the M&M Plaza flourished as the area’s first major shopping complex in the later 1960s. Kmart offered an automobile service center, lower left, now the site of the store’s garden shop. In the upper portion of the photo, the River Park campgrounds development is progressing.

Kmart Corp., based in Troy, Mich., was the world’s second largest retailer when it celebrated its 25-year anniversary in 1987. By then, the merchandising giant had been located in Menominee for 12 years.

Kmart was not among the original stores when Menominee unveiled the first shopping center in the Upper Peninsula in 1967. Tempo Department Store, then a part of the Gambles Store network, was the anchor retailer when the M&M Plaza was born.

1962 was the last of America’s “baby boomer” years when Kmart introduced its discount department store concept in a suburb of Detroit. The Kmart surge was phenomenal and the discount chain’s popularity skyrocketed. As store sales soared, so did the number of new stores in cities across the U.S. and in other parts of the world.

Menominee folks, still excited about opening a shopping center, were understandably thrilled when it was announced in 1973 that Kmart was coming to town. The arrival of the fast-growing discount store would mean new competition for other retailers in the M&M Plaza, those in other locations of the city as well as the Marinette retail market.

It would be two years, however, from the time of the announcement before the super store greeted shoppers at its grand opening in 1975.

It is not unusual for retailers, especially the smaller shops, to come and go whether it’s life in a downtown district or in a shopping mall. Kmart was not going to locate in the M&M Plaza complex, but was to be a free-standing building covering 64,000 square feet of floor space. The building was to be sited east of the M&M Plaza. The location needed extensive preparation work before any construction could commence.

Mayor Jerome Nesbitt was the driving force in luring Kmart here. The mayor issued a public announcement in August 1973 and indicated construction would start in September. The original plans called for the retailer to open the store by April 1, 1974, with about 225 jobs, including full-time and part-time. The mayor further revealed plans for an additional 25,000 square feet of floor space at Angeli’s Super Valu which had purchased the store from George Quentmeyer. Malan Construction Co. of Oak Park., Mich., was hired as the general contractor.

The Kmart construction schedule was interrupted when McCrory Corp., based in York, Pa., objected to the project. McCrory was the parent owner of the McCrory-McLellan Variety Store and one of the early retailers under the M&M Plaza roof when the shopping center opened in 1967. McCrory argued it had a 15-year lease agreement with the M&M Center Inc. (corporate name for M&M Plaza), and language in the lease prohibited no other “discount, cut-rate, factory outlet or any other type of underselling business,” in the area of the plaza.

McCrory notified Kmart that it would enforce the language in the contract to prevent the rising discount chain to build in Menominee. Kmart was planning a $1,396,000 construction project and the city’s assessment on the property was placed at $698,000. The city calculated Kmart’s annual tax payment to be $46,414.

A fiery mayor Nesbitt went into action. He convinced the city council to challenge McCroy’s stance in court. In May 1974 the city filed a class-action lawsuit in Menominee County Circuit Court. Weeks later, a $40 million class-action lawsuit against McCrory Corp. was filed in federal court in Marquette, Mich. The federal suit was filed under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the Clinton Act. The plaintiff in the federal lawsuit was E.N. Maisel & Associates of Oak Park, Mich., the developer for Kmart stores.

Nesbitt was in a combative mode as he hustled to bring the Kmart store to Menominee. The mayor directed City Attorney Kenneth O. Doyle to prepare the city’s legal case. Furthermore, the mayor sought the support of Michigan Attorney General Frank J. Kelley. Assistant Attorney General Edwin M. Bladen notified the mayor in October 1973 that he was launching an investigation of McCroy’s position. Bladen headed the attorney general’s consumer protection and anti-trust division.

“I assure you we will fight this barrier in the city if this business giant (McCrory) refuses to budge from its present position and destroy the opportunity for our community to have a Kmart Store,” Nesbitt told the city council at its Oct. 22, 1973, meeting. “Even though it may be considered stiff competition for McCroy’s, I feel that the people of our city want a Kmart store built here,” he added.

He told the council that the competition will be good for consumers, it will create jobs for the area and a “handsome tax base” for local units of government.

“Kmart wants to come to Menominee and Menominee wants Kmart. Therefore, we must fight for what we think is the best for our city,” the mayor declared. In late August 1974, McCrory Corp. revealed it was withdrawing its objection to plans for a new Kmart store.

While the city was pleased that the Kmart project could move forward after McCrory ended its disagreement, construction costs mounted during the legal fight and the developers had to reassess their building plans. The initial building phase included 64,000 square feet under roof, plus a 5,000-square foot garden shop.

Roger Atkinson was named general manager of the new store and directed a massive startup program for the grand opening in April 1975. Ten years later, Kmart underwent a major remodeling program at a cost of $1 million.

With Kmart anchoring the east end of the plaza territory, Tempo anchoring the west side, the M&M Plaza became the center for regional shoppers. Marinette began constructing Pine Tree Mall in the fall of 1977 and one year later — Oct. 24, 1978 — the mall opened.

The growing competition in the retail market caused havoc in the region and forced some of them to close their doors or relocate. Tempo, the star when the M&M Plaza turned on the lights, faded and eventually shut down its operation in September 1981 after 14 years here. Store manager John Wells had 16 employees at the end.

Like Menominee was excited at the news of a shopping center in 1965, the Marinette area likewise buzzed with elation when newspaper headlines described the coming of Pine Tree Mall. The details will come next Monday.