Traverse City News and Events

Momentum Builds For Civic Square In Downtown TC

By Beth Milligan | July 19, 2018

Downtown Traverse City could finally get its own public town square – a project on the city’s wish list since at least 1998 – after Rotary Charities named the project as one of two finalists for a $1 million grant.

Rotary has committed to investing $1 million into a “signature legacy project” to commemorate the organization’s upcoming centennial celebration in May 2020. Club members were invited this spring to submit ideas for projects that would positively impact “a large number of people” of all ages in the greater Traverse City area, be outside of the normal Rotary grant process or any existing capital campaigns, and be commemorative and celebratory in nature.

With no specific project ideas provided to members beyond the criteria list, at least five Rotarians separately submitted suggestions to fund a long-discussed civic square in downtown Traverse City. Downtown Development Authority (DDA) CEO Jean Derenzy says a town square is one of the DDA’s “original planned projects,” with city planning discussions dating back at least two decades on creating an urban community gathering space.

“A civic square is not about having another park – it is so much more,” Derenzy wrote in a memo to DDA board members this week. “Civic squares provide the setting for cultural and social activities. Often public places offer free, open forums for people to encounter art, to enjoy performances, and to participate in other cultural activities. A great civic square symbolizes the city’s renaissance, bringing people and events to a central urban area.”

Derenzy will seek a resolution of support from DDA board members at their 8am meeting Friday to officially back the grant application to Rotary for the project. Rotary members who supported the two grant finalists - the second project being a new event pavilion at Rotary's Discovery Pier on West Grand Traverse Bay - will present formal proposals for their projects to a committe of Rotary leaders in August. That committee will then make a recommendation for their top choice to the Rotary Charities and Rotary Club board of directors by October.

According to Derenzy, the targeted location for the town square would be the two connected private parking lots behind the Milliken Place building at the corner of Cass and State streets next to State Street Grille (pictured). The estimated price for the DDA to purchase both lots is $1.5 million. Derenzy estimated construction costs to convert the lots into a public town square would come in close to $1.8 million, bringing the total project cost to just under $3.3 million.

In addition to Rotary’s potential $1 million grant, Derenzy said additional funding or in-kind assistance could come from partners including the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, Traverse City Tourism, Traverse City Light & Power, Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, and other area business partners. Derenzy said the timing was right to prioritize pursuing the town square, which – despite being included in the DDA’s TIF 97 plan, Traverse City’s master plan, and Traverse City’s capital improvement plan – “continues to be the one community project that has eluded the DDA, as well as the most influential opportunity” to improve downtown, she wrote.

Other DDA board members and Rotarians agree. Scott Hardy, who serves on the DDA board and was one of the Rotarians to suggest the project, points out that “given the lack of available property in the core downtown area,” the DDA should move “sooner rather than later” on acquiring a parcel where a community square could be located. He says the square would be different than other city parks, like the Open Space, because it could be used 12 months a year and would also be located right in the heart of the city’s restaurant and retail scene.

“(The square) would have both winter and summers uses...it would draw people downtown, give them a reason to stay downtown, and enhance the business and retail community,” Hardy says. “Most cities of our size have some kind of centralized gathering spot.” The DDA has discussed a wide range of potential uses for the square, from winter ice skating to arts programming to community festivals and events to a possible new location for the Sara Hardy Farmers Market – an option that could save the DDA several million dollars in planned upgrades at the market’s existing site. Public input would be sought on any potential uses and design plans for the square.

Rotarians Mark Eckhoff and Deb Lake – along with Evan Gray and T. Michael Jackson – joined Hardy in proposing the civic square project for Rotary’s $1 million grant. “It’s something I think would really benefit Traverse City,” says Eckhoff. “And it’s a really big project. As a city right now, we’re scratching to come up with money to fix sidewalks. This is a luxury compared to fixing sidewalks or Eighth Street. So it just didn’t seem like it would be on the city’s front burner anytime soon (without outside funding). With Rotary wanting to do something that would benefit the entire community, it seemed like a good fit.”

Lake agrees. “The possibilities for use of the space are endless, and would be a result of a public process,” she says. “In New York, you can follow a delightful sound and suddenly find yourself in a green space, with people playing music, kids bouncing balls, friends eating and drinking – that’s our vision. The community has been talking about a public square since before many of us were born. Making it a reality is something only Rotary could do, and would be a fitting and enduring legacy.”

Derenzy says she believes Rotary’s support for the square – which would give the organization naming rights for the site, with the property potentially being called Rotary Square – is the momentum the city needs to make the long-proposed project a reality. “In my opinion, having Rotary’s approval of the civic square would allow the property to be secured and the square activated,” she wrote to board members. “Cities without a positive and unique center decline over time, and Traverse City is no exception. The downtown of any city should naturally be the center of gravity for the community’s civic life.”

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