Indian River native and creator of the Monster Energy drink brand Mark Hall says he wants to give something back to his home town.
Hall wants to build a world-class motocross track in Indian River that could include large spectator and camping areas and a club house for VIPs and corporate sponsors. The venue would host over 20,000 people for events including dirt bike, off-road truck and snowmobile races.
For some, his plans sound like a boost to the town’s economy, a big tourist draw, and something fun to do on weekends. The Indian River Chamber of Commerce and many residents are on board. They see a potential for an influx of jobs and cash.
Others want to tell Hall: “No, thanks.” Some motocross track opponents worry the sound of dirt bikes and traffic from thousands of spectators will overwhelm their somewhat sleepy, serene town.
It’s a debate that is likely to pit neighbor versus neighbor as plans develop.
Some opponents believe Hall has used his power and influence to “grease the skids” to ensure his plans get approved. Meanwhile, the chamber issued the summary of a survey which quoted one response that labeled opponents of the track “whine asses.”
Even before Hall has submitted a proposal to Cheboygan County for a zoning change that the project will need to move forward, a fight is brewing in Indian River.
Hall is president of Monster Beverage Co. and is credited with creating the product that made the company a powerhouse, Monster Energy drinks. He says he purchased around 200 acres of land north of Indian River as a private citizen.
Opponents believe the distinction is meaningless.
Hall agrees that should a motocross track get approved and constructed, his position at Monster Energy, a major sponsor of dirt bike races and other extreme sports across the country, would help lure races to Indian River.
Opponents aren’t worried about whether a track could get races; they’re worried how many of them there could be.
Hall says he’d be happy to attract just one of the dozen professional motocross events held each season. He hasn’t been specific about how many other events a track like this could host each year.
Trish WollCott, a track opponent whose family has a summer home near Griswald Moutain, a large hill a little over a mile north of Indian River where the track would be located, said Hall’s refusal to commit to a specific number of races worries her.
“I was distressed that he wouldn’t give a clear answer,” Wollcott said of a February public presentation and Q&A that Hall held about the motocross track.
NO PROPOSAL YET
Hall has not yet sought permission from Cheboygan County to build a motocross complex, but has taken some preliminary steps.
For the past year he has been open about his desire to see a motocross complex in Indian River.
He’s given interviews with the local newspaper, the Straitsland Resorter, about his plans and has hosted two meetings for area residents, one on his property last June and one at the township hall in February.
Hall told the Resorter a year ago that he only planned to hold three or four events per year. Later Hall said the number of events would be limited to those which the facility could attract.
In a phone interview, Hall said it is premature to get into details. “No proposal has been put forward,” he said.
The approval process for something like a dirt bike track is complicated, and it is especially so in this case, because Tuscarora Township does not oversee zoning but the township does have a planning commission and a master plan.
The county oversees zoning in the township, but it is supposed to use the township’s master plan as a guide to determine land use.
So when the township planning commission voted in January to amend its master plan in an off year to specifically address the future zoning of Hall’s property on Griswald Mountain, some motocross opponents suspected a conspiracy.
Officials say everything was done by the book and they note it is the county, not the township, that will ultimately decide the fate of any proposal. Residents will have a chance to give input at that stage.
Opponents don’t buy that. They believe Tuscarora officials quietly facilitated Hall’s plans while nobody was paying attention by changing the future zoning of his property from residential to forest-agriculture (which had been its designation in the early 2000s before a developer proposed a subdivision on the property).
Charlie Willmott, a neighbor and dirt bike track opponent, said it appears clear to him why that vote in January happened.
“You can’t go from residential to a race track, but you can go from forest-ag to a racetrack pretty easily,” he said.
OVERHEARD AT LUNCH
For Willmott, who found out about the motocross plans by accident, the news actually changed his life.
Willmott said he and his wife were having breakfast in an Indian River restaurant last year and were finalizing plans to use 11 acres of land his wife has owned for years to construct their retirement home just north of the village.
“We were one week away and we were in a restaurant downtown and she overheard somebody talking about the motocross track,” Willmott said.
They started looking into it and decided to scrap plans to build their dream home not far from the Griswald Mountain property. They bought a house in Petoskey instead.
“In essence, we are not opposed to motocross racing. It’s not my cup of tea, but we are not opposed. The problem is where he wants to locate it,” Willmott said. “Our contention is it’s a great idea, but this is the wrong spot for it.”
Willmott said he believes if a motocross track is constructed, it will be busy and active most of the time.
“He’s a promoter; I have to caveat each one of these statements that I hear from his mouth,” he said.
‘MAKING STUFF UP’
Hall said he believes opponents are spreading falsehoods about his proposal.
He said he has been open about his plans and has attempted to answer concerns from neighbors. At the meeting at the township in February, he brought a motocross promoter to the meetings to answer questions about the sport.
“I explained to the people assembled how there was an opportunity perhaps to bring national sporting events to the area,” he said. “From there, they’ve pretty much been making stuff up, and I don’t know how to stop the commenting.”
He said Northern Michigan’s population is too small to support a racetrack that operates every weekend.
Also, he said he believes until a proposal is finalized and submitted to the county, people shouldn’t criticize. “Common sense would dictate that you wait for the plan to be presented.”
Hall said he is preparing an application for a zoning change and that’s as far as the project has gotten.
‘A FAILING COMMUNITY’
Opponents argue that the noise and traffic generated by a motocross track could change the character of the community and make it a different place from the one they decided to make home.
On that point, Hall is unsympathetic. “Frankly, the town needs its character changed. It’s a failing community,” he said. “I think the community needs a leg up.”
Moreover, Hall said he is getting tired of the opponents and he said he has considered scrapping his plans, a move that would undoubtedly please most of his critics in Indian River.
Hall is clearly frustrated by the opposition his plans have generated -- he said he could keep the property private and host gettogethers of outlaw motorcycle gangs and he wouldn’t need to get permission from the county to do that.
“What they’re saying is, I live in a sleepy community and I want to live in a sleepy community, and that’s Okay,” Hall said. “I have an idea. I’ve discussed it with the community. A large portion of the community thinks it’s a good idea.”
There are some people, he said, who want to live around motocross tracks.
‘NOTHING TO TALK ABOUT’
Michael Ridley, the Tuscarora Township supervisor, has found himself in the middle of the two sides and fending off accusations from some opponents that he aided the zoning change.
Ridley noted that it is the county that will decide whether to approve such a project.
“There’s nothing to talk about until he makes an application,” Ridley said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen with this.”
When asked about the township’s decision in January to amend its master plan and whether that was done to give Hall an advantage when he requests a zoning change from the county, Ridley said he is not an expert on planning and zoning and referred questions to a county official.
Steve Schnell, community development director for Cheboygan County, said there was nothing improper about the decision by the township planning commission in January or in their actions leading up to it.
“The meetings that happened in Tuscarora Township were done according to state requirements,” Schnell said.
Notices were published and decisions were made publicly, he said.
HELP FOR BUREAUCRATIC HOOPS
Opponents believe they found evidence of back-room doings after they filed Freedom of Information Act requests and received copies of emails between township and county officials and Hall’s attorney, Neil Marzella, discussing how to get a plan through.
Schnell said the role of a planner for a county or township is to help any developer who comes to them to figure out how to get their plan through bureaucratic hoops.
While the emails might look like a conspiracy to opponents of the motocross track, that’s just how business gets done at that level, he said.
“Any development involves consultation with the planners first,” Schnell said. “We do this with every company that comes to us.”
It’s the planner’s job to make approval go “as smooth as possible,” he said.
WANTS ‘PEACE AND QUIET’
Steve Grandstaff, a UAW Legal Services liaison who lives in Indian River, lives about 600 feet from Hall’s property line and suspects shenanigans.
“I oppose the racetrack because of the noise it’s going to generate and the traffic its going to generate,” Grandstaff said. “I built there for the peace and quiet and this is going to intrude on our peace and quiet.”
Grandstaff noted that Hall has already done a lot of preliminary work on the property. A sizable access drive has been under construction this spring.
Grandstaff believes the change of the land’s future zoning in the township’s master plan was intentionally done quietly, even if there were public notices.
“They greased the skids for him. Not only did they grease the skids, they made it harder for me to protest the fact that they want to build a racetrack there,” Grandstaff said. “I looked at those legal notices. I’m no dummy. I know what happened there.”
Grandstaff also said he doesn’t buy Hall’s argument that people should wait for a formal proposal before they organize against his plans.
“He can say that he hasn’t made a move yet, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s made his move,” Grandstaff said.
‘DUH,’ ‘WHINE ASSES’
In February, the Chamber of Commerce issued a summary of a survey that showed support for the project. The survey found that around 97 percent of members who responded were in support.
Comments included in the summary include that motocross would “bring something new and exciting to the area” and, in response to a question about whether a track could provide an economic boost to Indian River: “duh.”
In response to a question about what the drawbacks might be, someone wrote: “will have to listen to the whine asses complaining about it.”
Dawn Bodnar, executive director of the chamber, said the comment reflects how strongly some people in the business community believe Indian River’s economy needs a boost.
Currently many visitors to Indian River see the town as a quick stop on I-75 on their way to someplace else.
“Our thing is trying to get people to come in to town,” she said. “You know, once they get here, they are charmed and they love it.”
Businesses especially like the prospect of motocross events held in the off season when Indian River can get really quiet.
“Our economy here is really based on tourism,” she said.
Grandstaff said the “whine asses” comment is representative of the way the motocross idea has pitted neighbor against neighbor.
“That’s the divisiveness right there,” Grandstaff said. “I understand that the business people in the community are hurting. ...I don’t agree that anything goes. The bottom line is putting a race track right in the middle of a residential area is absurd.”
He said the argument he hears from business people is that the local economy requires businesses to survive on what they can earn during the three months of summer. A racetrack that could boost yearround business would boost Indian River’s economy.
Grandstaff said he is unmoved. “You know what? I only have three months a year to enjoy my summer,” he said.
Tom O’Hare, who lives in Topinabee, a town about five miles north of Indian River, said he believes some opponents to the track have been unreasonable.
He cites an email that circulated against the motocross plans that he thought was too negative. He wrote a long letter to the Resorter in April that questioned some of the arguments against the track.
He said arguments that the track might cause more traffic or longer lines at the grocery store don’t hold up. People should want those things for their town, O’Hare believes, because they mean people are doing well.
“That means that tax revenues are being generated for the local community. That means that people have jobs,” O’Hare said.
O’Hare said he understands people who live near Griswald Mountain being concerned. He said he wished the debate over the track was more balanced, though. For example, he cited a recent letter in the Resorter that warned of noise from a campground at the track.
He said he spends a lot of time at Cross of the Woods near the Burt Lake State Park and campground noise is never an issue there.
“These concerns haven’t been proven, and for them to be put forth as fact” is unreasonable, he said.
GO-CARTS TURNED DOWN
History would appear to disfavor proposals for noisy entertainment around Indian River.
In 1998, a local business proposed a go-cart track for a property near Indian River and Burt Lake State Park.
That property was closer to residential neighborhoods and a popular campground than Hall’s Griswald Mountain property, which is buffered from neighbors by a section of woods.
The go cart track proposal won a recommendation for approval from the Tuscarora Township Planning Commission, but the county’s planning commission recommended denial of the application based on “noise level, pollution, safety and parking,” according to Cheboygan County zoning committee meeting minutes from May, 1998.
The application was denied in a unanimous vote.