Traverse City News and Events

Does Traverse City Really Need To Be Marketed?

By Craig Manning | Oct. 2, 2021

Does Traverse City still need to be “marketed”? It’s one of the area’s most contentious debates. Each year, organizations like Traverse City Tourism and Traverse Connect work hard – and spend big money – to draw visitors or permanent transplants to the area. But some locals are getting impatient, asking if it still makes sense when everything from housing to labor to childcare to parking to public infrastructure seems to be reaching a breaking point, while others insist it's critical to manage the growth rather than sit back and watch it.

“Some in this community have been preaching ‘economic development’ for years,” says Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers. “On one side, this is great for taxable values. But it has also become very lopsided and unaffordable for the service industry. And I’m hearing more from residents that they are growing more and more frustrated with how crowded and strange downtown is becoming. Residents and taxpayers are now saying, ‘What’s in it for me?’”

Carruthers says he’s “always supported wise and managed growth” but that he’s worried Traverse City has become “a runaway train [that is] leaving our taxpaying residents at the station.”

For the mayor, the issue points back to both tourism and population growth.

He says more tourism equals more stress on “the municipal infrastructure systems the city has to maintain,” but doesn’t add a commensurate amount of “dollars coming into the city to support our maintenance and expansion efforts.” Instead, those burdens largely fall upon local residents and businesses in the form of higher property taxes –thereby “making the cost of living for average people that much harder.”

Carruthers also sees a disconnect between efforts aimed at bringing professionals and businesses here versus a lack of focus on supporting the local service industry.

“Marketing white collar jobs only puts greater strain on the blue-collar service workers who the upper-end workers rely on for services, recreation, and entertainment,” he explains, noting that “lots of the development locally” – including the Creative Coast initiative launched by Traverse Connect last year – is aimed at young professionals. Other efforts, such as Boomerang Catapult and 20Fathoms, are focused heavily on growing the local tech sector. No comparable campaigns are pushing growth in the service labor force.

Carruthers isn’t the only person worried. Kevin Endres, owner and broker for Traverse City commercial real estate firm Three West, says he’s been preaching the same “soapbox pitch” about local growth for years. Now he’s sharing those opinions more broadly as a member of the Grand Traverse County Economic Development Corporation board – and finding more people share his views than he thought.

“We're spending all this time and effort because it's cool to go out to California to meet with these high-tech businesses and attract them to come here,” Endres tells The Ticker. “Because that's fun; that's sexy. But the reality is, I have multiple manufacturing clients who are saying, ‘I just need an electrician.’ There are plenty of jobs here for people already, and these [service industries] are the types of jobs, careers, and businesses that really pay for the day-to-day, so that these entities that are out there attracting people to our area can say, ‘Look at all the cool stuff we have!’ Well, guess what? If those [service industry] people can’t actually live here, if there's nobody to work at all the cool restaurants, then you don’t have those cool things.”

“We’re going to end up being so top-heavy that this whole thing just crumbles,” he predicts.

The seams, Endres says, are starting to show – with this past summer in particular displaying how “if you take one spoke out of the wheel, the whole thing falls apart.” From road and bridge closures that caused unprecedented gridlock around town, to restaurants that had to cut their hours because of staffing, Endres feels those missing “spokes” are spotlighting the limits of Traverse City’s current growth strategy.

“What about the people that actually grew up here, and live here, and are trying to make a living here?” Endres asks. “We need to take care of them. We need to take care of our housing problem. We need to take care of our traffic access problem. We need to help the small business owners here actually hire people. Because if you're going to go out to California and attract these high-tech jobs, that doesn't help the guy who can't stay open with his restaurant Monday and Tuesday.”

For his part, Traverse Connect President and CEO Warren Call doesn’t see a way to “take care” of Traverse City’s problems without economic development aimed at drawing new people to the region.

“I think it's important to acknowledge what our big problem is,” Call says. “And our big problem is not enough talent, not enough workforce. You ask any company in town – whether they run a retail shop, or an advanced manufacturing company, technology, hospitality, whatever it might be: They're going to tell you the number-one thing is not enough workforce. So, attracting more people to this area is directly addressing the number-one problem in the area. There are other things that need to be done, obviously, to address things like our housing constraints. But a lot of rural communities – a lot of up north communities – are having struggles keeping their economy going, keeping their community going. Because they're atrophying people; they're atrophying jobs and employers. It's our job to make sure that doesn't happen here. 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 probably 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 being criticized for bringing more traffic to Traverse City. Prior to taking the lead at TCT, Tkach was executive director for the National Cherry Festival. He agrees with critics that marketing Traverse City should be more strategic than simply telling everyone in the world to come visit. TCT, for instance, doesn’t consider it a goal “to drive more interest to Traverse City in the summer,” but focuses instead on attracting visitors during the slower fall, winter, and spring seasons. When asked about the idea of turning off Traverse City’s marketing machine entirely, though, Tkach suggests that taking such a step wouldn’t slow down growth – just render it unpredictable.

“This is a beautiful place,” Tkach says. “Regardless of the marketing we do, that's going to make Traverse City and the region a very desirable destination now and into the future. So, it’s not a matter of ‘Should we focus on economic development or not?’ It's that if we don't, it's going to happen regardless, and it's better to be thoughtful about it. I'd like to think we can work collectively [with our local partners] on responsible tourism, and really think about how we’re driving economic development that's reasonable and thoughtful. Because I think the alternative is, if groups like Traverse Connect and TCT don't engage and stay involved, things could go in a much different direction that the community would be far less satisfied with."

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