Traverse City News and Events

Optimism In Downtown Traverse City: Events, Promotions, Revenues, Housing

By Craig Manning | May 31, 2021

COVID-19 restrictions are lifting, parking revenues are bouncing back, and foot traffic is increasing: By most accounts, things are looking up for downtown Traverse City.

Several staple downtown events are expected to return in 2021 as pandemic fears subside. Katy McCain, director of community development for the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), says the DDA already has multiple art fairs and art walks planned for the summer, and is in talks with the Downtown Traverse City Association (DTCA) to resurrect Friday Night Live. The latter event series will likely take place at the Open Space in order to avoid Front Street closures during downtown bridge construction.

And downtown event planners are already looking ahead to fall and winter events like Shop Your Community Days, Men’s Night and Ladies’ Night, Santa’s arrival, the light parade, and the downtown tree lighting. The hope, McCain tells The Ticker, is that all of them will be able to return to the 2021 calendar “with some sense of normalcy.”

Up North Pride is looking to bring back its in-person programming in 2021 as well, but announced this week that it had “made the tough decision, along with other regional Pride organizations, to postpone our major June events this year until October.” Foundational Up North Pride gatherings such as Drag Night and the Visibility March are now slated for October 15-16.

In addition to the return of old traditions, 2021 will also see a variety of new events downtown. The DDA has dubbed June “Neighborhood Celebration Month,” which McCain says is all about “celebrating neighborhoods that make up the City of Traverse City, their residents, and their history.” The DDA has specified nine different neighborhoods in and around the city – Midtown and Downtown, Boardman and Oak Park, Central, Olde Towne, Traverse Heights, SoFo, Kids Creek, Slabtown, and a radius that includes Orchard Heights, the base of Old Mission Peninsula, and the east side of town – with plans to give each neighborhood “their own day to be highlighted on social media.” As part of the celebration, Espresso Bay has also created a special coffee roast for each neighborhood, and other downtown businesses will commemorate the occasion with discounts and promotions of their own.

Also new this year, the DDA is partnering with Northern Michigan E3, Taste the Local Difference, and other community partners to create events that celebrate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The first piece of that strategy has a working title of “Culture Kitchen,” which McCain describes as “a storytelling event through food.” Culture Kitchen will showcase “local chefs of color, their stories, and their recipes,” and is planned to ultimately feature three different phases.

“For the first stage of things, we’re bringing in some diverse chefs locally to do online cooking classes, with basic ingredients that can be affordable for all income levels,” McCain says. “It will be an online format where the chefs are walking you through the steps of making a specific ethnic dish related to their culture, but also telling their stories at the same time, of how they got into what they are doing and why cooking is important to their culture.”

Another big development heading downtown this summer is the arrival of smart parking meters, which will track real-time usage of parking spots and allow for payment with coins, credit cards, or reloadable smart cards. Though the new meters were initially expected to be installed this month, DDA Transportation Mobility Director Nicole VanNess says supply chain issues with computer chips in the meters have delayed the project. She expects installation will begin around the week of June 14.

VanNess tells The Ticker parking service losses were not nearly as dire during the pandemic as anticipated. For the current fiscal year (which runs July 1-June 30), VanNess reports $2 million in parking revenues, versus $1.3 million in expenses. For the 2019-2020 fiscal year, those numbers were $2.9 million in revenue and $2.7 million in expenses. By delaying several downtown parking projects, including “higher expense maintenance items” in parking garages, VanNess says her department was able to avoid dipping into surplus funds.

The worst also appears to be over for the parking revenue slump: VanNess says weekend activity has been strong since the middle of April, and that current tourism trends “appear to be following a pre-pandemic pattern,” likely signaling a busy summer.

Another promising indicator? Inquiries from out-of-towners who have rented Airbnbs downtown and are calling to ask specifically about parking.

“New people are coming to the area, new tourism,” VanNess says. “We have been fielding quite a few calls about trips planned for June, July, and August. Which is interesting, that people are pre-planning their parking. But we appreciate that.”

With events and tourism bouncing back, DDA CEO Jean Derenzy sees just one major step left to restore the downtown area to pre-COVID prosperity: a large-scale return to work.

“The difference that I see [between pre-pandemic and now] is with the offices and office workers that we know we need downtown on a regular basis,” she says. “That has not come back as quickly as we were hoping. So that is something that I know the DDA needs to deal with and understand. We need to try to bring new business in and old businesses back. Because [having office workers downtown] immediately impacts and provides assistance to our retailers and our restaurants.”

Finally, a new mixed-use development at 309 W. Front Street has been approved for $2.9 million in funding from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Michigan Community Revitalization Program. The project – which is being spearheaded by GLC Northern Michigan Pine, LLC, itself owned and operated by Great Lakes Capital – is planned as a four-story mixed-use structure, with 91 residential units across the upper three floors, 5,125 square feet of commercial space on the first floor, an underground parking garage, and more than 3,000 feet of public boardwalk along Boardman River. According to the DDA, 13 of the units will be priced at rates affordable to renters earning 80 percent of area median income (AMI).

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