“It Was Already An Uphill Battle”: Jean Derenzy Faces Critical Time For Downtown Traverse City
By Luke Haase | Nov. 16, 2020
Prior to the pandemic, downtown Traverse City was on fire: property values skyrocketing, two booming downtown movie houses, successful eateries, and growing visitor and shopper traffic year-round. Now -- with both theaters shuttered and some retailers and restaurants staring down a potentially quiet winter -- things aren’t so rosy for downtown and its leader Jean Derenzy. She tells The Ticker as much as $1 million could be set aside to save some of the merchants, while permanent changes to the way at least one downtown street could be in the offing.
Ticker: Most importantly, how are downtown Traverse City’s merchants doing?
Derenzy: They’re staying strong. They pivoted really well, and they seem to be looking forward to the holiday season -- as with every year -- but particularly this year. The winter months are even more of an unknown.
Ticker: Some people say, “retail is getting crushed.” On the other hand, more and more people are visiting here and moving here. Are the merchants basically just holding their breath?
Derenzy: It’s just hard to make up the six weeks they were closed no matter what. And they see the COVID surge just like everybody else. Listen, it was already an uphill battle for brick-and-mortar retail, but we do have a very unique downtown.
Ticker: What’s the final verdict on closing Front Street to traffic? Will you do that again next year?
Derenzy: You could tell people really appreciated the expanded public space. Most of the retailers appreciated it but also noticed a [positive] difference as soon as the street opened back up. It was the perfect opportunity to try it, when we didn’t have office workers downtown. But will it work when office workers are back? No. This has highlighted with how narrow the sidewalks are, particularly for sidewalk cafes.
Ticker: So it’s not going to happen again?
Derenzy: No, not if the office workers come back, which we want. I’d say it won’t happen again. And then you likely have the festivals coming back, too.
Ticker: Sounds like you are considering changing State Street to two-way permanently, though...
Derenzy: Yes, we are really looking at that. It will take a lot of coordination, but yes.
Ticker: Why does two-way traffic work better on State?
Derenzy: It’s just right for an urban core right approach. It needs to be part of the downtown district, with slower traffic, too.
Ticker: And now you’re planning a relief fund for the merchants? How will that work?
Derenzy: Right. We’re launching it with help of Venture North. We’re planning to have a survey out to businesses to hear where the need is -- not just short-term, but to get you through 2021. It would include all DTCA businesses, so a little larger group than just DDA members. We received up to $45,000 from the DTCA, and it will also be supported by Shop Your Community Days and an online raffle. We’re also working with Venture North to do grant asks from foundations.
Ticker: How much are you hoping to raise?
Derenzy: We don’t know yet, but I’m guessing it will be $300,000 to $1 million. We don’t want just a band-aid.
Ticker: There’s a really big issue in the background downtown that many people don’t realize. Property taxes have gotten so high, it’s having a ripple effect.
Derenzy: Yes. Someone said we have to start decreasing the values of the properties. That’s not realistic, but somehow we can’t price ourselves out of downtown. For everyone. So it doesn’t become just a financial district. It needs to be a place to work, play and live.
Ticker: Just to clarify: The issue is that people are paying more and more for buildings downtown, so the property taxes go up, and then the building owners raise rent, and the retailers either can’t afford to stay open, or if they do, it puts pressure on pricing for customers and pay for employees.
Derenzy: That’s exactly right. Cindy Warner and Pam Marsh and I are going to study the issue and work with the city and state to understand what the mechanics are that are in play. We just can’t become another Vail.
Ticker: What’s missing downtown, either in terms of retail mix or amenities?
Derenzy: A full-service grocery continually comes up as a miss. As for amenities, people talk a lot about not doing enough in the alleyways and around the river. I hear a lot about having a snowmelt system. And then the State Theatre. People want that back, and that hasn’t fallen on deaf ears. It just brings a different sense of place when those lights are on.
Ticker: What do you see as the biggest potential risk to downtown Traverse City in the next five years?
Derenzy: That’s an interesting question. I think it continues to remain the retail. Making sure it’s not just restaurants and commercial office downtown. Retail has the biggest uphill, with Amazon and more, and that’s related to the property values you mentioned. I think the other risk is not doing anything; thinking it’s healthy thriving and fine. And it is good. But you just need to know the trends and always move forward. Don’t be afraid to take risks.
Ticker: Has the job turned out to be more than you bargained for? Not every DDA director is handed this set of circumstances…
Derenzy: It’s much more than I anticipated, yes. Certainly COVID put things into a different perspective. But even before that, the significance of downtown and what it means to the region. I didn’t underestimate it, but I underestimated the speed of change.