Traverse City News and Events

Civic Center Path/Bridge to Get $1M Replacement; More Park Projects Planned

By Beth Milligan | Oct. 31, 2023

After Grand Traverse County Parks and Recreation commissioners approved a new vision for the Civic Center in 2020, the first key project in that master plan is set to move forward – with the county awarded a nearly $1 million grant to replace the park’s walking track and bridge. Construction could begin as soon as next year, with other Civic Center improvements – from Norte’s planned expansion to parking lot and irrigation upgrades to improvements to the ballfields – also in the works.

County officials recently announced the Civic Center was awarded a $998,800 Michigan Spark grant to replace the park’s one-mile walking track and bridge (pictured). According to the state’s website, Michigan Spark grants “help local communities create, renovate, and redevelop public recreation opportunities for residents and visitors” in the wake of the pandemic. Grand Traverse County Parks and Recreation Director John Chase estimates the walking track’s pavement is three decades old, with asphalt typically reaching its end of life after two decades.

“We’re starting to see wear, spots, and cracks in the surface, and before it gets to a point where it’s really bad, we want to replace it,” he says. “It’s probably the most highly used amenity in the park.”

A new Civic Center master plan adopted in 2020 identifies the replacement of the walking track as a top priority. An initial goal was to make the track ADA accessible, but a feasibility study showed that grading down the entire path would add significant expense and “take out a ridiculous number of trees on the west side,” Chase says. Park users also wanted to retain some hills and terrain variability on the track, input showed. County staff worked with Disability Network Northern Michigan to instead identify a signed ADA-accessible alternate route that will cut through next to Howe Arena and connect to the park’s sidewalk system so users have an accessible path through the park, Chase says.

Seven exercise stations are planned to be installed around the track – another amenity identified in the master plan – with the deteriorating but iconic Civic Center bridge also set to be replaced. “It was far more expensive to grade down than to replace that bridge, and by taking out the bridge, we would have had to take out a lot of trees and have another crosswalk where people would have to cross in front of cars,” Chase explains.

A running path will be added alongside sections of the new walking track where space allows. The project also calls for paving the dirt parking lot by the Civic Center’s amphitheater. The park’s main road is starting to crumble into that dirt lot, and paving it will increase the Civic Center’s overall parking capacity, Chase says. The entire project is estimated at approximately $1 million, with the Michigan Spark grant and additional support from the Traverse City Track Club and the Art and Mary Schmuckal Family Foundation anticipated to cover costs. Engineering work will begin soon following a request-for-proposals (RFP) process to select a firm, with construction anticipated to take place in either late 2024 or early 2025. The Michigan Spark grant requires the county to have contracts lined up by the end of next year and the project to be complete by the end of 2025, Chase says.

Other improvements are also in store for the Civic Center. Parks and Recreation is partnering with Dream Team Northern Michigan – a baseball league for youth ages 8-26 who have disabilities or special health care needs – to replace four baseball dugouts to make them universally accessible and to upgrade two fields. Dream Team has used the baseball fields for years and is a fundraising partner in the project, Chase says. A proposed county facilities budget – which will be discussed by county commissioners Wednesday – also lists several potential Civic Center projects in fiscal year 2024. Those include replacing the park’s irrigation system, estimated at $1 million, and using $350,000 to upgrade the field lighting to LED lights. Other repairs could include restroom, gutter, door, signage, seating, roofing, and ice rink circulation pump improvements at the park.

How many of those improvements actually take place in the next year – versus in future budget cycles – will depend on approved funding and availability of contractors, among other factors, Chase says. He says the county will “need to do something sooner rather than later” on the irrigation system and lighting, as those outdated amenities are deteriorating and rapidly accruing costs. “I'd love to see it all happen, but it’s up to the facilities budget in how they prioritize projects and what the phasing of those is going to be,” Chase says.

The Civic Center master plan also outlines years’ worth of desired improvements to the 45-acre park, which attracts approximately one million visitors annually. Those include building another ice rink/multi-purpose facility, adding two pickleball courts, improving the basketball courts, reducing ballfields to six and adding automated-pay batting cages with six stalls, developing a street-side/plaza-style skate park, and developing a picnic area near the south entrance with cooking facilities. All those improvements are likely to be phased out over time and are contingent on funding. “This (walking track) project is the catalyst to help us kick off the rest of it,” Chase says. “We’re working with the capital budget in the county and looking to other sources for fundraising to continue.”

Some projects are likely to come online sooner than others. In addition to the walking track, two other projects identified for early completion at the Civic Center are Norte’s expansion and improvements to the park’s Native American marker tree. Staff are working on plans for the tree, Chase says, while Norte and Parks and Recreation are collaborating on opportunities for Norte to add a pump track, safety traffic garden, and a bicycle education center. That project was initially intended for the southeast corner of the Civic Center, but Norte Executive Director Jill Sill says preliminary project bids and further study identified the opportunity to shave millions off the price tag and preserve the “natural park space” in the southeast corner by moving the project to the northwest corner.

That plan would entail Norte taking over the Civic Center’s maintenance building – an outcome that could be made possible due to a county facilities master plan underway, which calls for consolidating maintenance facilities at the county’s LaFranier Road campus. Both Sill and Chase emphasize that the facilities study is still being completed, with recommendations yet to be finalized and adopted by county commissioners. Chase says he’d prefer to see an existing Civic Center building repurposed than a new one built if possible. Sill says that if approved to use the maintenance building, Norte could potentially install its pump track next year and complete the traffic garden and bicycle education center renovations by the end of 2025. If the maintenance building isn’t available, Norte and Parks and Recreation will collaborate on alternate options for expansion in the park, she says.

Sill is excited about growth opportunities at the Civic Center, noting that the “pandemic has emphasized the need for accessible, free opportunities to safely enjoy outdoor recreation” – a need that “has only grown over time,” she says. Norte’s pump track and traffic garden “will be open to the public and accessible to riders of all ages and abilities,” she adds. Accommodating a wide range of users and ages is also a goal of Chase’s, who cites future improvements to the skate park among the many opportunities looming at the Civic Center.

“That expansion is definitely on the radar,” he says. “It's so heavily used, no matter what time of day or year you're out there. It's another great space in the park, and we want to continue to improve that.”

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