Traverse City News and Events

Youth Movement: 17-Year-Old Joins City Planning Commission

By Ross Boissoneau | Aug. 7, 2022

That controversial development downtown? Rezoning of properties and proposed building heights? Those issues come before the Traverse City Planning Commission, and that body’s newest member is also about to begin his senior year at Traverse City Central High School.

“I’ll be the student liaison, a voice for young people,” says Ted Arnold (pictured, middle), who will be a non-voting and the youngest ever member of the commission.

“I think students will help us have a wider vision than we would (otherwise). He will be a full participant, he just can’t vote,” Traverse City Planning Director Shawn Winter (pictured, left) says.

Arnold is one of three high school students to now serve on local governmental boards, joining outgoing Downtown Development Authority member Audrey Michael, a graduate of Traverse City West, and her replacement, Will Unger, who will be a senior at Traverse City Central. All were recommended by Government For Tomorrow, a non-profit dedicated to student participation in local government.

Liam Dreyer (pictured, right), who founded the organization, contacted Winter and suggested Arnold as a candidate. “I was contacted by (Dreyer), and spoke with the city attorney and clerk,” says Winter. When they said there would be no legal obstacles, he spoke with the planning commission members, who enthusiastically endorsed the idea.

Arnold believes it is imperative to include the viewpoints of younger people when considering decisions with the potential to impact the area for many years to come. “In general, people in government are usually older. They’ve had successful careers, but they don’t have the youth perspective,” he notes.

He says the planning commission is central to how the city and area will grow. “The planning commission has a lot of say in projects, housing and business development and zoning land,” Arnold tells The Ticker. He believes proper planning will help protect the environment while allowing for and encouraging growth. “How these changes (are decided) will shape the town we’re growing up in and may work in. We will be the ones living with their decisions for the next 20, 40 or 50 years.”

Winter concurs with Arnold’s assessment regarding the ages of those willing and able to serve. “Lots of the people on the boards and commissions are older,” he agrees. “It’s easy to get trapped in your own silo.”

That was also Dreyer’s thought. As a 14-year-old, he became a one of the youngest serving members in the United States when he joined the Charlevoix DDA. At 16, he became a voting member. He went on to form Government for Tomorrow to help other students take on roles in their community governments.

“I saw the success and how few cons there were. And the pro was a new age-group voice. I didn’t see why more places hadn’t done this,” Dreyer says.

So he set out to change that, creating the non-profit as a way to stimulate interest among both students and local governments. It works directly with communities to develop advisory positions for high school students on the various boards, while emphasizing the importance of local government to future leaders. Government For Tomorrow has succeeded in creating 19 such positions across the state.

Arnold’s position isn’t Traverse City’s first foray into student participation in governing bodies. Audrey Michael has served on the Downtown Development Authority Board for the past year as a student liaison through Government for Tomorrow.

“It’s been a really amazing experience,” she says, not only for her but for the DDA. She was part of a subcommittee that provided input on the plans to make State Street a two-way street, explaining how students use the downtown area. “We’re making plans for four to ten years ahead, so those most impacted will be my generation.”

She is heading off to Northwestern University this fall, and her place on the DDA will be taken by Will Unger. She now plans to study law and political science alongside voice and opera. She’s hopeful others will follow in her footsteps. “It opened my eyes to this area of government,” she says.

Arnold went through the interview and screening process with Government For Tomorrow for Michael’s position. Though he wasn’t selected for it, he was such a strong candidate that Dreyer ultimately reached out to Winter. Before he became a planner, Winter was a high school teacher, and he says he understands students’ strengths and what they can offer government. “What’s exciting about students is they are looking forward. I find they are confident, well-spoken and insightful,” he says.

Winter also hopes it stimulates interest in local government. “We’re practically begging people to serve on our boards,” he says. Winter is hopeful this this be a first step in generating enthusiasm among people of all ages as participants, as he says he wants” to build a bench of people” to serve on the various boards and commissions.

He believes it likely more students will work with local governmental units. “Right after meeting with Liam, I was so jacked up I talked with the Parks and Recreation Superintendent. She’s interested,” Winter says.

For his part, Arnold is excited for himself and his city, as well as other students. “I really hope it gets more young people involved,” he says.

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