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Traverse City History: River’s Edge rises along the Boardman River. The Milliken Building transforms into a smart and handsome echo of its original self. The State Theatre re-opens as a spectacular renovation, as does its next-door neighbor, now home to Red Ginger. Radio Center emerges at Park and Front. Midtown sprouts upriver from River’s Edge. The Bank of Northern Michigan building amps up Union Street. 101 North Park takes the place of a big hole. Two surprisingly nice-looking parking decks are born.
The buzz of downtown construction, renovation and vitality that Traverse City saw kick in around the turn of the new millennium would be remarkable during any dozen-year span, but when set against Michigan’s worst-in-the-nation economy, that growth seems nearly miraculous.
Sure, everybody in America is painfully aware of the Great Recession, but what few outside of Michigan know is that our state’s employment peaked in June 2000 and then entered a decade of decline. Some economists even labeled our economy the “one-state recession.” From April 2000 to December 2009, the United States lost 1 percent of its nonfarm employment, while Michigan lost 18.4 percent, and during that time lost nearly 1 million jobs, according to a University of Michigan study. The state’s economic story is difficult to look at even in the rearview mirror, but those disturbing numbers put Traverse City’s vitality into especially sharp and bright relief.
So, how did that growth happen? For backstory, on a chill January afternoon we invited Bryan Crough, Executive Director of Traverse City’s Downtown Development Authority, to don his signature overcoat and walk around downtown to talk about the transition.
So, when you think about this decade-plus of growth in Traverse City’s downtown, what is the first thing that comes to mind as a driver?
You really can’t talk about that without going back much further, to the late 1980s. People were very concerned. A big mall was coming, Penny’s was leaving downtown, the Park Place was bankrupt. So we had a summit about the future of downtown and hundreds of people participated over two days.
Give us an important change that came from that.
People decided that the Downtown Development Authority and the Downtown Traverse City Association—the merchant association—had to have clearly separate responsibilities and clearer missions. And they hired me to head both organizations—I had been on the city commission.
Can you recall an early task that might sound simple but was important in putting things in motion?
We had to get people to have a cohesive vision for downtown, and one of the first things was convincing merchants to stay open for the same extended hours during holiday shopping. It signaled a renewed spirit of working together.
But also, some other basic principles came out of those early meetings. We estimate that we had lost a third of downtown buildings from the 1961 peak. Buildings had been torn down. Fires had destroyed some. And more and more surface parking lots had been put in. We wanted to reestablish density and connectivity. We were talking about placemaking before we even knew there was a term for it, and it explains why Traverse City sent the largest contingent to the first Congress on New Urbanism.
A third of downtown gone and all the momentum heading in the wrong direction.
Right. And that percentage doesn’t account for all the four- and five-story buildings that had been replaced by one-story buildings. So really it was worse.
When I talk to other towns about this, I tell them downtowns decline one step at a time. And in coming back, downtowns discover that the opposite is also true. It’s not about one big magic new development. It’s a whole bunch of little things. You have to worry about everything. Everything. You can’t worry about the multimillion developer without also worrying about individual stores and whether there are dead bugs in the merchants’ windows.
What about the people part of it, getting people back into downtown?
We recognized that we needed some outside help, and we brought in some consultants in the 1990s. One of the things I’ll never forget is one of them said, “You need downtown to be the hometown place to shop.” And out of that came Friday Night Live. We wanted to show off Front Street. We put flyers in surrounding neighborhoods. We targeted locals, and the whole goal was “the hometown place to shop.”