Traverse City News and Events

First Clues Emerge In Traverse City's "Healthier Drinking Culture" Project

By Craig Manning | June 18, 2021

Does too much of Traverse City’s economy and social experience revolve around alcohol? That’s a question the City of Traverse City, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), and the Traverse City Police Department (TCPD) are hoping to answer through their Healthier Drinking Culture project. The findings could shape the next chapter of Traverse City’s tourism economy, and lifestyle, with everything from law enforcement tactics to liquor license approvals potentially at stake. And The Ticker has uncovered some early clues about where stakeholders think the town should head.

According to the official website, the goal of the process is to create a strategic plan that “will identify the current state of and desired vision for Traverse City’s drinking culture and include immediate, short-term, and long-term recommendations to achieve that vision.” The project is funded by a 2020 grant from the Northern Michigan Regional Entity (NMRE).

Spearheading the project are Elise Crafts of Statecraft, a local strategic planning company; and Megan Motil of Parallel Solutions, a Traverse City business specializing in community engagement and organizational development. The project team also includes representatives from the city government (City Manager Marty Colburn and City Clerk Benjamin Marentette), the DDA (CEO Jean Derenzy and Director of Community Development Katy McCain), and TCPD (Chief Jeffrey O’Brien and Downtown Community Police Officer Jonathan Culver).

Motil says the first phase has been about determining how local residents, businesses, and other stakeholders define a “healthy drinking culture” – and where Traverse City might be falling short.
For several months, Motil has been engaging with local stakeholders to get their perspectives on Traverse City’s drinking culture. That started in the winter with a public online survey as well as one-on-one conversations between Motil and downtown liquor license holders, businessowners, employees, and local health professionals.

This month, the project launched a series of focus groups aimed at collecting feedback from broader groups – including local residents, wine and beer tour operators, downtown customers, and more. Three focus groups remain on the schedule – a June 21 session for “folks who don’t drink alcohol,” a June 22 session for residents of city neighborhoods, and a June 24 session for employees of local restaurants, bars, and tasting rooms – after which the project team will work to “assess information gathered and identify themes, values, opportunities, needs, resources, and gaps.” More details – including registration links for the Zoom-based focus group sessions – can be found here. Locals can also submit feedback directly to the project team via the contact form.

So far, Motil says some of the words and phrases local stakeholders have been using to describe their ideal drinking culture include “joyful; celebratory; respectful of other people; balancing fun and good times with responsibility; and having people know their limits.”

“We've heard people use words like ‘sophisticated’ or ‘elevated’ when describing the culture,” Motil continues. “We’ve also heard the word ‘accountability’ quite a bit, for businesses and for individuals. And there’s also a pretty big theme related to the availability and accessibility of transportation choices. Another big thing that keeps coming is finding ways to feature abundant spaces and outdoor recreation experiences [in town] that don't feature alcohol. And we're also hearing a lot about how healthy alcohol consumption is often paired with food, so focusing on that connection between food and alcohol as opposed to just focusing on alcohol consumption itself.”

City Commissioner Roger Putman says he’s been participating in the focus groups and is “excited about seeing the final report.” Putman, along with fellow City Commissioner Brian McGillivary, has been critical of Traverse City’s drinking culture in the past: In 2019, the two commissioners even proposed a six-month moratorium on new liquor licenses. That moratorium was voted down by the full commission, but Putman says he and McGillivary have continued to vote against new liquor licenses – a strategy he describes as “a protest vote to reinforce our opinion that there comes a time when you need to say ‘Enough is enough.’”

Putman is hopeful that the Healthier Drinking Culture initiative will provide some framework for how liquor license holders might better be held accountable for overly intoxicated patrons. He also thinks the project might help Traverse City strike a better balance with its drinking culture, so that it remains a welcoming place to visit or reside “for families and people who maybe don’t imbibe, but want to come downtown.”

Motil notes that this particular desire – to not only have more experiences in Traverse City that don’t involve alcohol, but also “to have no social shame around choosing not to drink” – has been a common refrain in early sessions.

Troy Daily, owner of Kayak, Bike & Brew (KBB), says he’s made a concerted effort with his business over the years to promote healthier drinking behavior. His tours visit three local breweries, and customers are encouraged both to drink in moderation (Daily says one beer per customer per brewery is the average intake) and to pair each beer with food. Still, while Daily believes he has a good handle on things at KBB, he’s supportive of the Healthier Drinking Culture initiative in general and is hopeful that it will provide local alcohol-related businesses with guidance on where the problems lie.

“If there’s a problem that needs to be resolved, then there needs to be an equal goal in mind for all the businesses to understand what that problem is, and to all get on the same page to solve that problem,” Daily says.

Motil confirms that businesses will be looped back in once the project team has compiled a first draft of the plan. All local stakeholders will have a chance to review that draft and offer feedback, with the final draft likely to be presented to the DDA and the city by the end of September. While restaurants, bars, and other businesses will ideally find the plan instructive, though, Motil notes that the primary goal of the strategic plan is to direct future tactics for the three host entities.

“So, for TCPD, those tactics or strategies are going to be focused on the role they play related to public safety, law enforcement, community policing,” Motil says. “For the DDA, their role in the community is to support the businesses downtown and the experiences of people who are coming into the downtown area, whether that's related to events, marketing, or support for business owners or employees. The tactics that they might employ will be related to those roles. And then the city is responsible for land use planning, zoning, and licensing, so the things that might be addressed for them in this plan will focus on those activities.”

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