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Fingers Crossed for Fred Meijer's Legacy in Detroit

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I like Meijer. I shop at Meijer. After 11:00 at night, the Meijer at 12 Mile and Telegraph is, by far, the hottest spot in Southfield. I also once spent a delightful afternoon at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids. Unlike many of Metro Detroit's titans of industry, however, I did not have much exposure to the Meijer behind Meijer or his philanthropic footprint.

Fred Meijer passed away on Friday at age 91. The family has understandably asked for privacy and the company, for that matter, remains family owned, so I will respectfully say my piece and then forever hold my peace. First, my condolences. I lost my grandfather at 97 last year and there was undoubtedly something larger than life about their generation, especially those who had the spirit of success, sense of civic duty and luck of longevity to shape their own legacies. Second, for that very legacy, build a Meijer in Detroit. Third, build another Meijer in Detroit.

Detroit's limited retail and fresh food options are well documented, if occasionally overblown. But it is true that many Detroiters have to overcome untenable financial and logistical hurdles to eat healthy. I would guess that on any given day, a third of the shoppers at the Southfield Meijer are from Northwest Detroit. So I was excited to hear that Meijer was exploring -- pursuing, even? -- the development of two stores in Detroit. The plan, as recently reported, is to build Meijers (not to be confused with the colloquial possessive "Meijer's") at the State Fair Grounds and on the site of the former Redford High School at Grand River and McNichols.

So what does this have to do with legacy of Meijer (the man, not the store)? I'm not entirely sure, but, at the very least, it seems like the right thing to do -- and an endeavor whose time has come. And I think Meijer (the store, not the man) would see a strong return on their investment. Beyond the generous tax package, I'm sure many of the Detroiters shopping far from home, after hours at Meijer in Southfield would rather save the money on gas and put the funds toward the grocery list at their own friendly neighborhood Meijer. To say nothing of the people who will have newfound access via non-motorized transportation.

The current area Meijers -- Allen Park, Southgate, Lincoln Park, Livonia, Warren, Woodhaven, Sterling Heights, Royal Oak, Madison Heights, Fraser, Southfield, Northville, etc. -- make up a constellation that could be called Nonshopas Detroiticas. Google Maps even goes as far as to preempt "Meijer Detroit" with "Meijer near Detroit." No nearer than necessary, it has historically seemed.

With $15 billion in annual sales across five states, Meijer is about as corporate as they come, but they have a reputation as being a true Michigan company. And in a world where the Oreos taste and cost pretty much the same everywhere -- sorry, Hydrox -- reputation is everything. Fred, it seems fair to say, loved Michigan. With his money, he could have retired to Miami or Milan or the moon. But he was at Spectrum Health System in Grand Rapids -- presumably near a branch of the hospital bearing his name -- when he left the corporeal world.

For that matter, most of his philanthropy appears to have stayed close to Grand Rapids. As we well know -- I'm sure Fred did -- the world is a lot smaller and the fates of Southeast and West Michigan bound up much tighter than when Fred's father Hendrik hung a shingle in Greenville in 1934. Hard not to draw some connection between the state of the Depression then and the persistent unemployment and financial insecurity many in Michigan are feeling today.

Within Detroit, the folks who live in the shadow of vacant Redford High School are unlikely to feel much ripple effect from the downtown and midtown development. Replacing the hulking, historic building with a superstore is bound to have some detractors of its own, but, for what it's worth, I've spent a lot of time in the neighborhood and it would have my ringing endorsement.

Sons Hank, Doug and Mark -- and the rest of the homegrown talent at and near the helm of Meijer -- have the opportunity to make a strong statement in the months ahead, as their Detroit endeavor inevitably encounters one obstacle after another. They can show that, as Fred did, the people who shop at Meijer aren't just their customers. They are their fellow Michiganders and they deserve not only Meijer's lower prices but also their higher standards.