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Confronting Sprawl, Traverse City Eyes New Path

Cool Cities grant to boost local farm, artist economies

October 1, 2004 | By Keith Schneider
and Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Pat Owen

Traverse City’s recent Cool Cities award will develop small farm, artist, and other creative, sprawl-free businesses and strengthen the city itself, including the Old Town area, pictured here.

Not long ago Bill McDonough, an architect and planner who is widely regarded as one of the genuinely towering intellects of this age, visited Traverse City to talk about growth, sprawl, and how to establish a new kind of economy that conserves the best of what the region offers.

Near the end of his speech Mr. McDonough reported that the five-county Grand Traverse region is seen nationally as a “touchstone.” It is a place that is becoming well known not only for its beauty and quality of life, but also for the innovative work local residents and community leaders are putting into sustaining these assets.

“People out there are interested,” Mr. McDonough said. “They are watching what you are doing here.”

And well they should. Lots of beautiful rural places in America are growing in population at the same 20-plus-percent rate that the five-county Grand Traverse region experienced over the last decade. The great dispersal that began a half-century ago with white flight out of the nation’s cities is now repeating itself as congested suburbs hemorrhage residents to rural regions, which themselves are becoming crowded.

With its clean air, fresh water, wide-open spaces, and thriving economy, Traverse City is regularly ranked now as one of the best places to live and do business in the country. The five-county region attracts some 500 new residents every month, a growth rate that will add 60,000 new residents this decade, or the same number of people that now live in Leelanau, Benzie, and Antrim Counties. The vehicle population is growing even faster.

But Mr. McDonough’s “touchstone” comment also reflects his knowledge of and respect for how the region is responding to population growth, which the U.S. Census Bureau predicts will at least double, and perhaps triple, the number of people here by mid-century.

Cool Cities Helps Break the Mold
That growth prospect, if it were to develop by conventional patterns, would be as dispiriting as a drive through the strip mall litter of South Airport Road in Garfield Township, south of Traverse City, or the traffic chokepoint at Chums Corners. But what Mr. McDonough knows is that, with better planning around its quality-of-life priorities, this region can grow without further spoiling its communities and countryside and without shoving off on future generations the high costs of pollution, traffic-clogged roads, unaffordable housing, burger-flipping wages, and the dislocations of farms and other local businesses that come with chain-store sprawl.

That work is well underway here.

Just last month the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners and its appointed road commission suspended their push to build a disputed highway and bridge across the Boardman River valley. The two boards are now working with local governments, environmental leaders, and the regional chamber of commerce on a comprehensive land use and transportation plan to develop a more effective and environmentally sensitive way to move people and goods.

Another breakthrough in the region’s multi-front battle against sprawl was Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s decision in June to award a $100,000 “Cool Cities” grant to the city for a project to grow local jobs using the talents and skills of people who are already here: The new Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship. 

The institute will realign and focus a wide range of existing educational, technical, and financial resources to better serve and expand the potential of a whole class of entrepreneurs that most economic development efforts ignore. Those include farmers, artists, and other mostly self-employed people who are from this place and who have the potential to develop products and services that can help keep the region’s unique vibe alive.

The institute, housed on the second floor of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce’s new downtown office building, will create a space where artists, farmers, and others can find their way, connect with each other, and grow their businesses, which do not depend on and, in many ways are the antithesis of, more spread-out office buildings, malls and subdivisions, wider roads, and ever-larger parking lots.

Under-sung Entrepreneurs
Artists and farmers rarely consider themselves to be entrepreneurs, often fall through the cracks of economic measurement, and typically operate without the business skills and planning needed to thrive. The Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship is Traverse City’s way of recognizing the economic value of all the microenterprises out there and setting itself up to give them the unique attention they deserve and the customized help they need.

At least 30 percent of the U.S. workforce is self-employed, according to one federal attempt to quantify people working in arts, entertainment, and recreation. Other studies point to at least twice that many people who do not show up in statistics but who are working on their own in some way to pursue their dreams or supplement their incomes with a creative pursuit. Farms are a big component, with more and more setting up roadside stands and websites to earn money outside big agribusiness channels with hand-tended, specialty produce they can sell with a local story and personal touch.

Reaching out and nurturing the business potential of artists, small farms, and other local creatives is a new economic imperative and opportunity, especially for rural areas, according to a recent compilation of data and thinking on the topic in the trade journal Economic Development America.

Successfully targeting and growing such “creative industry clusters” involves designing small business development centers around unconventional entrepreneurs, networking strategies to help smaller firms meet larger markets together, and linking local creatives to manufacturers who could use a shot of art, design, and aesthetics to differentiate their products in mass markets.

The Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship is just such an effort. It is a new and big idea that must prove itself with results. The fact that the Institute will rent and furnish the vacant second floor of the chamber’s new downtown offices looks to some like a bailout for the business group’s building costs. Overcoming this initial skepticism is a matter of time and attention to the project’s tremendous potential to add depth and opportunity to the region’s economy at a very low cost, and without flinging people, jobs, homes, and businesses across the countryside.

In effect, the institute represents a new way to think about how to keep Traverse City economically competitive. It is about building human capital and enriching the region’s unique character, which is entirely different than the kind of conventional cookie-cutter economic development that typifies Garfield Township.

That township, south of Traverse City, is the fastest-sprawling community in northern Michigan. Its leaders hatched a thoroughly “modern” land use plan in the early 1970s that devoted thousands of acres to new businesses, subdivisions, malls, and one-story office complexes. The township actually set out to develop almost every acre in its jurisdiction to bring in businesses and consumers. The public at large also invested heavily in this plan. From 1970 to 2000, taxpayers in and outside Garfield Township spent $22 million for job training, industrial park infrastructure, bond funds, and road and sewer construction grants.

It worked: Garfield built an economic engine that tripled its population to 15,500 people and now draws tens of thousands of workers, shoppers, and visitors from the surrounding region.

But the prosperity is deceptive. Traffic and development are overwhelming Garfield's public facilities, especially its roads. Sewer rates recently doubled for all township residents and businesses to pay for a wastewater treatment plant expansion fueled primarily by Garfield’s growth. Modernizing and expanding public infrastructure to support the additional sprawling development that Garfield plans will require a taxpayer-financed investment approaching $100 million.

Taxpayers are now rebelling, however, not only because of the expense but also because the result is so disfiguring to the landscape and depressing to the soul. The enormous cost of building still more suburban sprawlscapes in Garfield and several other nearby townships is the fuel that propels the regional political discussion about the urgent need for smarter growth.

The city’s new Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship is an important facet of that new thinking. Traverse City’s project gets at a fundamental goal of the governor’s “Cool Cities” initiative: Building a new and durable economic base by helping people employ themselves through their own creativity, land, and vision. The institute is determined to set a leading-edge direction for the region’s economy. Thousands of jobs now, and thousands more in the decades to come, are at stake. So is the natural beauty and small-town culture that keeps and draws people here.

Keith Schneider is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s founder and deputy director; Patty Cantrell directs the Institute’s  entrepreneurial agriculture program. They can be reached at keith@mlui.org and patty@mlui.org.

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