Traverse City News and Events

The Gamechangers, Part 3: An Airport, A Rotary Club, And An Oil Rush

By Craig Manning | April 17, 2022

The 1970s were an exceptionally eventful decade for Traverse City.

The City Opera House was added to national and state historic registers in 1971, presaging efforts in the coming years and decades to restore and repurpose the building. In 1975, sitting president Gerald R. Ford visited Traverse City and led the Cherry Festival Parade. The decade saw the renovation of the Grand Traverse County Courthouse, as well as the construction of the Governmental Center Building right around the corner. Cherryland Mall opened its doors, as did the Meijer store on US-31. In turn, the Downtown Development Authority formed to help the downtown area compete against the growing prevalence of shopping malls and big box stores.

If we’re looking at the true gamechangers, though, 1970s history in Traverse City has to come down to two: one that paved the way forward for the area as a tourism draw, the other which helped write the next 45 years of charitable and nonprofit activity in the region.

1971: A quantum leap forward for Traverse City’s airport

By the time the 1970s rolled around, air travel had already been a part of Traverse City’s DNA for more than 40 years. The area’s first airport, Ransom Field, had opened in 1929, though it only offered flights to and from Grand Rapids. Six years later, the City of Traverse City built the Traverse City Airport, which opened in the mid-1930s on Garfield Avenue. Ransom Field, located on Veterans Drive, is today the site of the Memorial Gardens Cemetery. Traverse City Airport, meanwhile, was eventually renamed Cherry Capital Airport (TVC) – and would evolve considerably over the years into the bustling airport it is today.

1971 could fairly be viewed as the year where that evolution truly started to accelerate – though it’s possible the airport’s growth would have started sooner had it not been for World War II. While the city built and owned Traverse City Airport in the mid-1930s, the asset was turned over to the United States Navy in 1942 for the war effort. The U.S. government gave it back to the city in 1949, opening the door for big changes.

Two key events happened in 1971 to reshape the future of TVC. First, a joint ownership model was adopted, giving Grand Traverse County and Leelanau County equal ownership and say over the airport. Second, 1971 saw TVC open its first commercial terminal, which helped put Traverse City on the map in new ways as a travel destination.

The new terminal was a big deal – and a big investment – for its time. It cost $1.2 million to build (more than $8.5 million in today’s dollars) and featured what were, at the time, the only escalators in Michigan north of Grand Rapids. Most importantly, the commercial terminal brought jet service to Traverse City for the first time. In fact, it was because the jets were so big that the airport required escalators in the first place. North Central Airlines, a key airline servicing TVC at the time, had recently upgraded its fleet to DC-9s, and those planes required a second-story terminal for passengers to board by way of loading bridges.

Funnily enough, TVC didn’t have enough money left over after the terminal construction to buy loading bridges. So, for the first decade-plus of the new terminal’s operation, passengers would arrive at the airport, go inside, take the escalators up to the second story, and then descend a set of stairs and exit the terminal on the other side to board planes from the tarmac. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that the airport got a passenger loading bridge that allowed passengers to board flights from the second story.

The old terminal stood for 36 years before TVC ultimately tore it down in 2007. The structure had become superfluous after Cherry Capital opened its new terminal in 2004. Still, the 1971 terminal proved an important part of TVC’s history and in the history of Traverse City’s tourism economy. In 1981, 10 years after the terminal was built, the Traverse City Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (now Traverse City Tourism) organized and began marketing the region as a tourist destination.

1976: A landmark discovery leads to the formation of Rotary Charities

1970 marked the 50-year anniversary of the Rotary Club of Traverse City – and  kicked off what would prove to be one of the most crucial decades in the club’s history.

That big decade was thanks in large part to the Camp Greilick property. The Rotary Club had owned the land since 1923, and had been leasing it to the Boy Scouts of America since the 1950s – a lease that would last until the Boy Scouts closed the camp in 2016.

In 1975, though, Rotary Camps & Services entered into an agreement with Total Petroleum Company to conduct “potential mineral exploration” of the property. According to the Rotary website, a quartet of Rotarians – Al Arnold, Frank Power, Jerry McCarthy and Bob Hilty – negotiated the contract, stipulating that the Rotary Club would receive 25 percent of any oil and gas revenues “until all production costs were met,” and 40 percent of revenues thereafter. In 1976, Total Petroleum Company struck oil on the Camp Greilick site, and Rotary had a gold rush on its hands.

Suddenly flush with cash, Rotary started kicking around the idea of a nonprofit that would “distribute interest income from the oil and gas royalties as challenge and matching grants given to worthy projects throughout the five-county region.” Thus, in 1977, Rotary Charities was born.

In its earliest years, Rotary Charities helped fund the establishment of the Biederman Cancer Center at Munson Medical Center, the Northwestern Michigan College University Center, and the Dennos Museum Center. Other early projects focused on “affordable housing, environment, culture, recreation, strengthening families, and community capacity building.”

Marking its 45th anniversary this year, Rotary Charities has invested over $63 million in northern Michigan since it was formed. Key projects over the years included the renovation and revitalization of the Park Place Hotel in the late 1980s and early ‘90s; the incubation of both the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy and the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation in 1992; the formation of TART Trails in 1995; the resurrection of the State Theatre in the 2000s; the reimagining of Clinch Park and the West Bay waterfront in 2010; the establishment of the Discovery Center on Grand Traverse Bay in 2016; and many more.

As for Camp Greilick, plans were approved by East Bay Township planning commissioners last month to open the property to the public for the first time ever as the Greilick Outdoor Recreation and Education Center (GO-REC), potentially paving the way for that project to move forward.

Pictured: Upper left, passengers board a North Central Airlines plane from the Cherry Capital Airport tarmac; upper right, another aircraft on the TVC tarmac in the 1970s; bottom left, a Camp Greilick sign; bottom right, members of the Traverse City Rotary Club in front of an oil well on the Camp Greilick property.

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