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"Dark store" case makes its way to the Michigan Supreme Court

An empty big box store - a former K-Mart in Grand Blanc Michigan
Michigan Municipal League
An empty big box store - a former K-Mart in Grand Blanc Michigan

The city of Escanaba is taking on big box stores in the Michigan Supreme Court. The city says the home improvement store Menards is dodging taxes.

It’s called the “dark store” loophole, and it’s been used more often in recent years by the Michigan Tax Tribunal when assessing property taxes. It determines property taxes for fully-functioning retailers like Target and Wal-Mart based on nearby empty stores.

A former K-Mart in Flint.
Credit Michigan Municipal League
A former K-Mart in Flint.

Jack Van Coevering is the attorney for the city of Escanaba, which is going up against the home improvement chain Menards. He said the city wants the big box stores to be taxed like other stores.

“Fundamentally, there’s a fairness issue that local retailers are being taxed at a much, much higher per-square-foot value than these big box stores,” he said.   

The strategy not only gives incentive to retailers to keep vacant stores, it also cuts into the pockets of local governments, Van Coevering said, particularly in more rural areas.

“It has significant impact to other U.P. communities that have a tax base that is largely somewhat small because huge tracks of land are federally owned or state owned and can’t be taxed,” he said. “For a lot of local units this is the difference between a library being open on Saturday.”

Michigan Senator Tom Casperson has said he plans to reintroduce legislation to prevent big box stores from appealing their tax assessments to the Michigan Tax Tribunal. It’s the tribunal that has been allowing retailers to lower their assessments with this strategy in recent years.

Before becoming the newest Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network, Cheyna Roth was an attorney. She spent her days fighting it out in court as an assistant prosecuting attorney for Ionia County. Eventually, Cheyna took her investigative and interview skills and moved on to journalism. She got her masters at Michigan State University and was a documentary filmmaker, podcaster, and freelance writer before finding her home with NPR. Very soon after joining MPRN, Cheyna started covering the 2016 presidential election, chasing after Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and all their surrogates as they duked it out for Michigan. Cheyna also focuses on the Legislature and criminal justice issues for MPRN. Cheyna is obsessively curious, a passionate storyteller, and an occasional backpacker. Follow her on Twitter at @Cheyna_R
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