Traverse City News and Events

The Gamechangers, Part 2: A Portrait Of A Bustling City

By Craig Manning | April 10, 2022

This week, The Ticker continues its multi-part journey through the past 70 years of Traverse City history.

Today, we’re taking a look back at the 1960s, a decade in which Traverse City’s downtown area matured and evolved in several notable ways. According to Census data, the ‘60s actually saw more people living in the City of Traverse City than have resided there before or since. In 1960, some 18,400 people lived in the city, up from 17,000 in 1950. That number would decline in the coming decades as Traverse City developed more of an urban sprawl. Even today, the city isn’t as densely populated as it was then. In 2020, the census count for the city proper was 15,678. Fittingly, then, most of Traverse City’s crucial developments in the 1960s were focused around the center of town.

1968: A new chapter for the Grand Traverse County Civic Center

Today, the Grand Traverse Civic Center is a prime gathering spot at the heart of the community, home to everything from Howe Arena to Norte to Parallel 45. In the 1960s, though, the Civic Center wasn’t even the Civic Center yet. In fact, for more than half a century, the spot was home to the Northwestern Michigan Fair and was known by locals as “the fairgrounds.”

According to the Northwestern Michigan Fair website, the fair took up residence at the Civic Center site in 1912 and took place there annually for more than six decades. Previously, the fair had been held each year under the tents at the local circus grounds – today the location of Thirlby Field. In those years, the Civic Center was a “driving park,” owned first by the Traverse City Driving Park Association and later by Howard and Isabelle Whiting. In 1912, Grand Traverse County bought the property from the Whitings for $10,000 and it officially became the fairgrounds (the gates are pictured top right).

1968 proved to be a pivot point for this major community asset. That year, the county commissioned a study aimed at developing a long-term plan for the property. By that point, the county had been thinking about selling the land to a private developer for several years. Public pushback caused the county to abandon that idea, but that didn’t mean the property would stay the same. Crucially, the county's 1968 plan called for moving away from using the property as the site of an annual fair.

Thus, the fairgrounds were officially renamed the Grand Traverse Civic Center, and Northwestern Michigan Fair was left to find a new home. The fair would continue at the Civic Center for several more years, as the Fair Association searched for an alternate property, purchased land, and prepared the new site. The search led to the property on Blair Townhall Road that still serves as the fairgrounds to this day, which the Fair Association purchased from Consumers Power in 1971 for a price of $15,600. 1974 marked the last time the fair was held on the Civic Center premises.

The Civic Center would evolve considerably over the subsequent years and decades. Some features from back then are still there today. The Norte wheelhouse building, for instance – now painted orange – was a shed used for fair-related storage. The walking path that encircles the Civic Center today, meanwhile, resembles the mile-long racing track once used for driving races and horse races (pictured from the air, upper left).

Other developments were still to come. The early 1970s saw the construction of the Easling Memorial Pool and pool building. Howe Arena was built in 1989. The skate park broke ground in 2000. And the Kid’s Kove playground was built at the Civic Center in 1996, but was demolished in 2015 due to elevated arsenic levels in the soil from the pressure-treated wood used in the play structures.

A new downtown starts to take shape

Perhaps because of the city’s population growth, the 1960s proved to be the decade in which the downtown area we know today truly began to take form.

Most pivotally, the ‘60s marked the birth of the downtown area’s one-way street design. Up until that point, Front Street and State Street had always been two-way roads. There had been conversations in 1955 about changing both streets over to one-way traffic flow, but pushback from downtown merchants torpedoed the concept.

According to the Traverse Area Historical Society, city and downtown officials revisited the subject in 1966, ultimately deciding to make the roads one way for a trial period from May through October that year. In February of 1967, a permanent change was approved, and on April 27, 1967, the design locals know today – one-way traffic on the 100 and 200 blocks of East Front Street, the 100 block of West Front Street, the 100 and 200 blocks of East State Street, and the 100 blocks of both North Pine Street and North Boardman Avenue – officially went into effect.

That traffic routing has largely remained the same ever since, with the biggest deviation occurring in the summer of 2020 when the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) voted to close Front Street between Park and Union to allow for a pedestrian-only space. The DDA is also planning for a future conversion of State Street back to two-way traffic after successfully piloting the concept in 2020.

The 1960s also saw several other developments that would shape the future of downtown. The Downtown Traverse City Association came together in the ‘60s, allying merchants and other downtown businesses in the pursuit of marketing and promoting the downtown area. In 1960, the City Commission received an appropriation from the Michigan State Waterways Commission to build a public marina, which led to the construction of the Duncan L. Clinch Marina the following year (pictured, bottom left).

In October 1962, a community theatre group called the Traverse City Civic Players gave its first performance. The group would perform mostly at high school auditoriums and other local venues until 1972, when it moved into the old First Christian Church building – known today as the Old Town Playhouse.

In 1965, the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce took up residence at the corner of Cass and Grandview Parkway. That location is still home to Traverse Connect today – though, the then-forward-thinking design of the 1965 “blockhouse” chamber building (pictured, bottom right) would later be traded for the stately structure that sits on that site today.

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