Traverse City News and Events

FishPass, Rotary Square, More Downtown Projects Move Ahead

By Beth Milligan | Jan. 16, 2021

Several projects in downtown Traverse City are moving ahead, with construction officially starting Monday on FishPass at the Union Street Dam site and city leaders preparing to sign a purchase agreement to lock in the planned Rotary Square at the Union/State intersection. Traverse City Downtown Development Authority (DDA) board members discussed those and more projects Friday, in addition to updates on downtown events – including the annual Chili Cook-Off – and funding applications received from businesses for the Downtown Relief Fund.

Downtown Projects
Construction on the long-planned FishPass project at the Union Street Dam will officially start Monday, with contractors installing fencing, removing trees, and preparing the site for additional future work.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded the $19.3 million construction contract for FishPass in October to Traverse City-based firm Spence Brothers Construction. The deteriorating Union Street Dam will be upgraded with a selective fish passage facility that will include an adaptive fish-sorting channel and fixed crest labyrinth weir. The project will allow fish biologists from around the world to evaluate different fish sorting technologies to combat invasive freshwater species, such as the sea lamprey, from moving upstream to spawn. Multiple park improvements are also planned for the property, including kayak landings both up and downstream of the new dam and a connecting rail between them, ADA-compliant boat landings, a step-stone access down to the river, new boardwalk, benches, trash bins, landscaping, and bike racks.

"This milestone represents years of hard work from many dedicated partners," says City Manager Marty Colburn of the construction launch. "We ask the community to be patient with our construction partners as this exciting project advances. Soon, there will be dedicated viewing sites set up for the public to watch FishPass take shape."

Early construction activities will include decommissioning and capping a water main that traverses the existing dam and installing in-water steel sheet pile cofferdams that will protect work areas and allow for the construction of designed components. Total construction on the site is expected to be complete by spring 2023.

Just north of FishPass, another major downtown project is about to reach a significant milestone. Downtown Development Authority (DDA) CEO Jean Derenzy expects to sign a purchase agreement Monday or Tuesday with TCF Financial Corporation for the current bank property at the corner of Union and State streets for the planned new downtown civic square called Rotary Square. DDA board members Friday approved new language for that agreement, which will now offer two options for the sale. In the first scenario, the DDA would purchase the property and also provide a new headquarters for the bank across the street in Lot G, the city-owned parking lot next to Modes Bum Steer. The DDA would construct an infill building on that lot with TCF as a leased tenant and city-owned rental apartments in the upper floors. That scenario was what was initially agreed to by both parties in their letter of intent signed in 2020.

However, the pending merger of TCF with Huntington Bank has now put a second option on the table: that TCF will sell the Union/State property outright to the DDA, with no requirement to build a new headquarters. The sale price would remain the same in either scenario at $1.75 million. The DDA will know by June if the second option is being triggered, according to Derenzy. DDA Board Chair Gabe Schneider said an outright sale would be a "huge step forward in moving this project to fruition," as the DDA could begin construction immediately on Rotary Square instead of having to construct the infill building first. The DDA could still build an infill project on Lot G, according to Derenzy, but would not be rushed to do so and would have more flexibility with that project. Derenzy says the DDA is preparing options for either scenario, with a signed purchase agreement locking in the future site of Rotary Square either way.

Downtown Events
DDA staff are continuing to try and hold popular downtown events during the pandemic when feasible to do so, though casualties are still expected in the months ahead, according to a staff report Friday. One of those casualties for 2021 will likely be the annual Downtown Chili Cook-Off, an event typically held mid-January that attracts 1,500+ attendees and serves as a significant fundraiser for the Downtown Traverse City Association (DTCA). Downtown Experience Coordinator Nick Viox said staff considered different options for holding the event this year, but ultimately put it on hold based on feedback from restaurants.

Downtown will still move ahead with Traverse City Restaurant Week this year – expanding to two weeks in late February and early March, as first reported by The Ticker – and has also launched an online winter version of the Sara Hardy Downtown Farmers Market. The market launch brought in 117 orders totaling $4,550 in sales during the first week, according to Viox. The DDA plans to add more market features in the weeks ahead, including subscription services and gift cards. Viox said staff are also in the process of reviewing options and alternatives for downtown Art Fair events this summer.

Downtown Funding
A call for applications from downtown businesses in need of funding assistance generated an overwhelming response, with more than $702,000 in funding requests submitted for an initial available pool of $57,000.

The DDA and Venture North opened up the application process in late December to any DTCA members to request up to $15,000 per business in pandemic-related assistance from the Downtown Relief Fund. Priority will be given to applications that demonstrate a viable plan for 2021, show adjustments to operate despite Covid-related challenges, and outline the community impact of the business. An independent, volunteer team of local representatives established by the DDA is responsible for reviewing the applications.

According to Laura Galbraith of Venture North, 53 DTCA members applied for the first round of funding. Of those applicants, 42 percent are in accommodation/food service, 42 percent in retail trade, 9 percent in personal care services, 5 percent in art/entertainment/recreation, and 1 percent in manufacturing. All of the applicants are year-round businesses, according to Galbraith. An announcement is expected to be made early next week on the list of businesses that will be awarded first-round funding. Derenzy says the goal is to offer two additional rounds of funding – pending additional donations and grants to the Downtown Relief Fund – and to open up the eligibility pool to any businesses within the DDA boundaries, not just DTCA members. "There is still significant need (for assistance)," Derenzy says.

Pictured, left to right: Before-and-after images of Union Street Dam site prior to and following FishPass construction

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