Traverse City News and Events

The Future Of Hickory Meadows, Historic Barns & GT Rec Authority

By Beth Milligan | Aug. 9, 2018

In 2004, Traverse City and Garfield Township voters approved ballot measures to fund a $6.5 million bond and an ongoing millage allowing their communities to jointly purchase and maintain three park properties. Now the Joint Recreational Authority – a board of city and township officials that oversees Hickory Meadows, the Historic Barns at the Grand Traverse Commons, and a small parcel near West End Beach – is seeking public input on the future of the parks and authority as the millage nears its 2024 expiration date.

The Recreational Authority Public Visioning process will use online polls, in-park surveys, focus groups, and two major community visioning sessions this fall to create a plan for the future of the parks and board. While the original plan was for the rec authority to dissolve in 2024, executive director Matt Cowall says there’s been strong consensus among community leaders that the entity should continue. “It makes sense for the city and township to have these properties taken care of, and the rec authority is willing to do that for these three properties,” he says.

The 2024 millage expiration offers an opportunity for the rec authority to seek a renewal from the public – either in 2020 or in 2024 – to continue funding for the parks. The current millage rate is at .0983, raising approximately $160,000 per year. Matt Cowall, executive director of the rec authority, calls that funding level a “pretty thin budget” for maintaining hundreds of acres of property, particularly with the historical infrastructure needs at the Barns at the Commons. Accordingly, major capital projects are almost entirely funded by outside campaigns, Cowall says. Ahead of a future millage renewal request – or potentially, an increase request – the rec authority hopes to highlight improvement needs at the parks and get resident feedback on what they’d like to see at the properties.

Upcoming projects targeted for the Barns include $400,000-$500,000 to completely redo the roads around the property – which are now the original Traverse City State Hospital two-tracks, insufficient for handling modern vehicle traffic – and an estimated $700,000 project to install an elevator tower between the two barns, making both levels of both facilities universally accessible. While Hickory Meadows is intended to be protected as open space for passive recreation, the rec authority has made improvements such as installing trail markers and benches, and could further enhance passive amenities. Adding or grooming cross-country ski trails to complement trail work planned at neighboring Hickory Hills is one project that’s already been publicly suggested, Cowall says.

The third rec authority property – a half-acre piece of land adjacent to the downtown volleyball courts – was purchased to remove the former Smith-Barney Building that was on the site and provide clear public views and access to the bay. “That project is largely complete,” Cowall says. “The victory was in getting it publicly owned and removing the building. But there are still plenty of management and capital needs at the other two parks.”

Another potential outcome of the Recreational Authority Public Visioning process is the expansion of the board’s responsibilities. “One idea that’s currently being floated is that the city, township, and county all have an agreement as to how the maintenance will be handled for the Boardman Lake Trail (once completed),” says Cowall. “Part of that is they want to involve the rec authority to be the managing agency over the trail, in terms of maintenance. Those bodies are at the table right now and are looking at the rec authority as a good landing spot for those responsibilities.”

The rec authority could also tackling acquiring more property for public use, though Cowall notes no particular parcels have yet been identified and that projects would need to prove equally beneficial to both Traverse City and Garfield Township residents. He says the main goal of the public visioning process is to create a plan – similar to the Brainstorming the Barns process in 2007 that created a detailed framework for improvements at the Barns over the following decade – to provide clear direction for the rec authority and parks going forward.

“The Brainstorming the Barns process called for an event rental enterprise and the upkeep of the cathedral barn, both of which happened,” Cowall says. “That process set the property on a straight path the rec authority could follow. They’ve always appreciated the direction it provided. One of the important takeaways from this public visioning process is to get a really good sense from the public of our scope of work going forward. It could mean (keeping) the status quo, or (Boardman Lake) trail maintenance, or something we haven’t dreamed up yet.”

Consulting firm Beckett & Raeder was hired through a public request-for-proposals (RFP) process to guide the public visioning sessions this fall. A website has been launched for the project; the first community survey is available to take online through the site. In-person interviews are simultaneously being conducted on-site at the Barns and Hickory Meadows; posted signage also provides a SMS number park visitors can use to take the survey by text. The results of those surveys will be revealed in October at the first of two community visioning workshops. At that meeting, the public can “learn about the authority and share their vision for future recreation services and amenities,” according to project documents.

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