Does Traverse City still need to be “marketed”? It’s one of the most controversial debates in the region. Every year, organizations like Traverse City Tourism and Traverse Connect work hard – and spend a lot of money – attracting visitors or permanent transplants to the area. But some locals get impatient and wonder if it still makes sense when everything from the home to work, childcare to parking and public infrastructure seems to hit a breaking point, while others insist it matters to manage the growth rather than sit back and watch it.
“Some in this ward have been preaching ‘economic development’ for years,” said Jim Carruthers, mayor of Traverse City. “On the one hand, that’s great for taxable assets. But it has also become very one-sided and unaffordable for the service industry. And I hear more and more from local residents that they are getting more and more frustrated with how crowded and strange the city center is getting. Residents and taxpayers are now saying: ‘What do I get out of it?’ “
Carruthers says he has “always supported smart and managed growth,” but fears Traverse City has become a “runaway pull” [that is] leave our tax-paying residents behind at the train station. “
For the mayor, the issue refers to both tourism and population growth.
He says more tourism means more stress on “the municipal infrastructure systems the city has to maintain,” but does not add an equivalent amount of “dollars to the city to support our maintenance and expansion efforts.” Instead, most of these burdens come in the form of higher property taxes on residents and businesses – making “the cost of living much more difficult for the average person”.
Carruthers also sees a mismatch between efforts to bring professionals and businesses here and a lack of focus on supporting the local service industry.
“Marketing jobs to white-collar workers only puts a strain on the service workers whom senior workers rely on for services, recreation and entertainment,” he explains, noting that “much of the development in the field” – including the Creative Coast Initiative started by Traverse Connect last year – aimed at young professionals. Other efforts like Boomerang Catapult and 20Fathoms have a heavy focus on growing the local tech sector. No comparable campaigns are driving the growth of the service workforce.
Carruthers isn’t the only person worried. Kevin Endres, owner and broker of Three West commercial real estate company in Traverse City, says he has been preaching the same “soapbox pitch” about local growth for years. Now, as a member of the board of directors of the Grand Traverse County Economic Development Corporation, he shares those views more broadly – and finds that more people share his views than he thought.
“We’re putting all of that time and effort into because it’s cool to go to California to meet these high-tech companies and attract them here,” says Endres The ticker. “Because it’s fun; that’s sexy. But the reality is I have several manufacturing customers who say, ‘I just need an electrician.’ There are already a lot of jobs for people here, and this one [service industries] are the types of jobs, careers, and businesses that really pay for the day-to-day, so those businesses that bring people to our area can say, “Check out all the cool stuff we have! ” Guess what? If those [service industry] People can’t really live here if nobody works in all the cool restaurants, then these cool things don’t exist. “
“In the end, we get so top-heavy that the whole thing just collapses,” he predicts.
The seams, says Endres, are beginning to show – especially last summer it became clear that “when you take a spoke out of the wheel, the whole thing falls apart”. From road and bridge closures that caused unprecedented traffic collapse across the city to restaurants that had to cut their hours due to staff cuts, Endres believes these missing “spokes” are the limits of Traverse City’s current growth strategy .
“What about the people who grew up here and live here and try to make a living here?” Asks Endres. “We have to take care of them. We have to take care of our housing problem. We have to deal with our traffic access problem. We have to help the small business owners here actually hire people. Because if you go to California and attract those high-tech jobs, it doesn’t help the guy who can’t keep his restaurant open Monday and Tuesday. “
For his part, Warren Call, President and CEO of Traverse Connect, sees no way to address Traverse City’s troubles without economic development aimed at attracting new people to the area.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge what our big problem is,” says Call. “And our big problem is not enough talent, not enough manpower. They ask every business in town – whether it’s a retail store or an advanced manufacturing company, technology, hospitality business, or whatever: they’ll tell you that not enough workers are coming first. So attracting more people to this area directly addresses the biggest problem in this area. There are of course other things that need to be done to address things like our housing restrictions. But many rural communities – many communities in the north – struggle to keep their economies going, to keep their church going. Because they wither people; they stunt jobs and employers. It’s our job to make sure this doesn’t happen. And I think it’s a misnomer to think that we would solve our problems by closing the door and not having more people come. In fact, that would likely exacerbate our problems. We can always welcome new ideas and new people to help us solve our problems. “
Trevor Tkach, President and CEO of Traverse City Tourism (TCT), is no stranger to his work, which has been criticized for bringing more traffic to Traverse City. Prior to heading TCT, Tkach was Executive Director of the National Cherry Festival. He agrees with critics that marketing Traverse City should be more strategic than simply asking anyone in the world to visit. TCT, for example, does not see a goal of “creating more interest in Traverse City in the summer” but instead focuses on attracting visitors during the slower fall, winter and spring seasons. When asked to completely shut down Traverse City’s marketing machine, however, Tkach said that such a move would not slow growth, it would only make it unpredictable.
“It’s a beautiful place,” says Tkach. “Regardless of our marketing, Traverse City and the region will become a very popular travel destination now and in the future. So it is not about “Should we focus on economic development or not?”. If we don’t, it will happen anyway, and it’s better to think about it. I would like to think that we can work collectively [with our local partners] to responsible tourism and really think about how we are driving sensible and thoughtful economic development. Because I think the alternative is that things could go in a completely different direction that the community would be far less satisfied with if groups like Traverse Connect and TCT didn’t get involved and stay involved. “