Traverse City News and Events

DDA Teams Up With Traverse Connect For Potential Business Attraction Program

By Craig Manning | May 21, 2022

Banking and financial services; architecture and design firms; innovators in the marine technology and outdoor recreation spaces: These are a few of the industries that the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority (DDA) could soon begin targeting as it seeks to fill second-floor vacancies throughout the downtown area.

Traverse Connect CEO Warren Call was on hand at the DDA’s monthly board meeting Friday morning to present a new Business Attraction Program, which would market Traverse City toward the types of businesses listed above. The DDA board did not make any formal decisions on the program Friday. However, DDA CEO Jean Derenzy indicated that her staff and the Traverse Connect team would work together in the coming weeks to put together a more formal proposal for the board.

For several years, Traverse Connect has had a contract to provide economic development services for the DDA. In 2020, as part of a COVID-19 Economic Resiliency Report, Call recommended that the DDA find new ways to promote downtown as place “to live and work full-time in a culturally-rich and diverse environment, not just visit for shopping and restaurants.” In response to that recommendation, the DDA directed Call and the Traverse Connect team “to develop a business attraction program that clearly defines the target industries to attract, provides an updated marketing plan to appeal to these businesses, and outlines a marketing campaign to spread the message.”

Step one of developing a new Business Attraction Program, Call told DDA board members, was identifying the “benefits and features” that the DDA could “sell” to attract more businesses. Those features included the prestige and success that a downtown location denotes about a business, the visibility for a company’s brand that being downtown can provide, the accessibility for employees to local amenities, and more.

In a document provided to the DDA board detailing the new Business Attraction Program, Call and Traverse Connect noted that the above qualities could be attractive to any number of business types, and that any “overall marketing program should be developed in a way that appeals to a broad spectrum of businesses in innovation and professional services.” However, the report also touted the value of targeting “specific sectors for recruitment” as a way “to drive investment and encourage the development of additional ‘anchor’ companies located in the downtown district.” As such, the report identified four categories of businesses that Traverse Connect sees as top prospects for the DDA to pursue as it seeks to develop the downtown business community: financial services, real estate development and design, marine technology, and the outdoor recreation industry.

Some of these industries, Call noted, already have a strong presence here. Downtown Traverse City is no stranger to financial services, for instance, with a growing number of banks establishing headquarters close to the center of town. Call even went so far as to call downtown TC the “financial district” of northern Michigan, and noted that having even more financial services firms with a presence in town could be beneficial to entrepreneurs and early-stage businesses looking for capital.

Real estate development and design is also an industry with an existing presence in the downtown area – a presence that could grow as more businesses come north to capitalize on Traverse City’s booming real estate market. Call noted that companies focused on real estate design, architecture, engineering, construction management, technology, and other related facets will be crucial in driving development of commercial and housing projects alike.

The other two industries that Traverse Connect identified as high-potential targets for downtown relocations – marine technology and outdoor recreation – have less of an existing foundation in the downtown area, but also have clear draws that could bring them to northern Michigan.

In the case of marine technology, several local players – including local businessman Casey Cowell and Hans Van Sumeren of Northwestern Michigan College’s Great Lakes Water Studies Institute – have been pushing for years to establish Traverse City as a global hub for freshwater research, policy, and technology. Already, Call tells The Ticker that Traverse Connect is working with NMC, Michigan Tech University, 20Fathoms, the Discovery Pier, and Congressman Jack Bergman to secure funding for a new “Freshwater Research and Innovation Center” in the Grand Traverse region. That development could help spur startup activity around freshwater technology, or draw existing companies to the region.

In the case of outdoor recreation, Call said that the proximity of downtown Traverse City to an array of outdoor recreation attractions – from Grand Traverse Bay, to the TART Trail, to nearby equestrian facilities – could make it an ideal location for manufacturers and technology innovators in this niche. For example, Call noted that Traverse Connect has recently been talking with an electric boat company that is interested in moving to Traverse City. He also added that Michigan’s Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry – which was established in 2019, as part of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources – is interested in partnering with Traverse City to establish a hub for the outdoor recreation industry in northern Michigan.

So, what’s next? In April, Traverse Connect ran a test campaign aimed at encouraging entrepreneurs, startups, and existing business owners from downstate communities to relocate to downtown Traverse City. The campaign utilized a variety of display ads on Google and Facebook (pictured) and generated considerable interest, including more than 100,000 impressions per day and nearly 9,000 ad clicks. If the DDA decides to implement the Business Attraction Program officially, ads like these would be a part of the equation, as would physical displays at Cherry Capital Airport and “select tourism venues” around town, “short social testimonials” from local businesses like Hagerty or Keen Technical Solutions.

DDA board members expressed interest in pursuing the campaign further, though they also shared several potential tweaks to the approach and target markets. Vice-Chair Scott Hardy, for instance, suggested targeting “tangential businesses to what Munson provides” – including medical technology companies and aging and dementia services – to support Traverse City’s aging population. Pete Kirkwood, meanwhile, urged the DDA to take this opportunity to “look at what we want” and not just fill business spaces with “low-hanging fruit.” In particular, Kirkwood pushed back against the need for more banks for financial services businesses downtown, suggesting that there were other uses that could fill vacancies and bring more “positive corollaries” to the downtown area.

Moving forward, Derenzy said her team will work with Traverse Connect to develop a more formal implementation plan for the Business Attraction Program, which the board could then consider. That plan would include not just target industries and advertising strategies, but also a “matrix of success” that the DDA and Traverse Connect could use to measure conversion rates, business relocations, and overall downtown impact.

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