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Traverse City Business Leaders Support a New Growth Strategy in Michigan

Land use and transportation group may hire Robert Grow to launch regional visioning

December 13, 2005 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Business and government leaders like Brad Niergarth, incoming president of the Traverse City Area Chamber of commerce, want to keep the Traverse City region beautiful, while attracting jobs and welcoming newcomers.

TRAVERSE CITY—Just as he's done in Utah for nearly a decade, Robert J. Grow swept into Traverse City last month to encourage the region's leading business executives to pursue a new economic development strategy that accommodates record rates of population growth but also conserves money, time, and scenic beauty.

Mr. Grow’s credibility on such topics has made him among the nation’s foremost land use and transportation advocates. A lawyer and industrialist from Salt Lake City, Mr. Grow founded and led Envision Utah, a broad-based coalition that in the late 1990s convinced residents in 10 Wasatch Front counties to draw homes, businesses, and neighborhoods in closer proximity to new transit lines. The Salt Lake City region’s new design for growth will accommodate 3.4 million more residents by 2050 even as it preserves wide-open Western spaces, reduces taxpayer expenses, eases traffic congestion, and produces an exceptional and prosperous quality of life.

The executives who heard Mr. Grow speak, at the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce Winter Leadership Retreat on November 30, came away from the meeting talking about the need to get a similar regional planning program off the ground in the Grand Traverse region. They looked to the Utah native for guidance. Last week, the Michigan Department of Transportation agreed to help; it authorized a local coalition of governments and civic organizations to spend up to $25,000 of MDOT money to hire a national expert to help launch the formal visioning process. The coalition meets on Tuesday next week, when its members are expected to extend a formal invitation to Mr. Grow to participate.

Executives Like the Idea
Ed Ness, the president and chief executive officer of Munson Medical Center, said that he is looking forward to supporting long range regional planning in any way that he can.

“Businesses need to take a lead in this,” said Mr. Ness. “As employers, this is an issue that is important. We drive a lot of this, and therefore we should be taking a lead. Not only independent business leaders but resources of companies will be essential to making it happen. If it’s not bought into by businesses it won’t succeed.”

Mr. Ness added: “What I’d like to see is that different communities and townships get together and look as a region to where we go with transportation and land use planning. Each could look beyond their own boundaries because we can’t address these needs individually.”

Mr. Grow will be asked to use his expertise and national contacts to recruit a top consultant capable of conducting a land use and transportation planning process that has the potential to shape a new era of energy-efficient, environmentally-sensitive, and cost-conscious development in northwest Michigan.

Andrew Bateman, the executive vice president and general manager of Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, likes that idea. In fact, Mr. Bateman thinks that strong leadership is essential if any regional plan has a hope of succeeding.

“We’ve got to find a leader, whether it’s in the business or political arena, who can run the process,” he said. “Mr. Grow marshaled the troops in Utah very well, and we need a consensus builder who’s not going to antagonize everybody.”

Business leaders contacted by the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service were uniformly enthusiastic about the project and Mr. Grow, who has indicated that he would like to assist the Grand Traverse region.

“I think he’ll be like a really good football coach,” said Sally Bornschein, president of the Home Builder’s Association of the Grand Traverse Area, and a member of the coalition that brought Mr. Grow to town. “It’s encouraging that he is a business person that will help us with this vision.”

Brad Niergarth, the incoming president of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and a long-time director at Dennis, Gartland, and Niergarth, an accounting firm in Traverse City, believes that the business community and the residents are committed to preserving natural beauty and the region’s superior quality of life. “I think we’ve got bright people,” he said. “It’s a matter of discussing how we use space and resources and how to provide jobs and make transit happen.”

Tim Nelson, the president of Northwestern Michigan College, added that a sound regional plan could help the area avoid some of the pitfalls of rapid growth, but only if government leaders are prepared to implement the plan. “The vision alone would be insufficient,” he said. “A commitment to implement it on the part of government and the citizenry would be required.”

Committee’s Work Precedes Grow Visit
The sudden swirl of activity surrounding Mr. Grow’s November visit follows months of hard work by a 29-member committee of local government leaders, land use and environmental advocates, and business executives. The coalition, which calls itself the Land Use and Transportation Study committee, formed earlier this year after a much-disputed $55 million bridge and highway across the Boardman River south of Traverse City was put on indefinite hold by the Grand Traverse County Road Commission. With the help of Senator Carl Levin, the committee secured $3.3 million in federal funds to develop an alternative land use and transportation plan to ease congestion and curb sprawl in the region.

Linda Smyka, the mayor of Traverse City, said she is ready for such a plan and thinks her constituents are, too. “So many folks are transplants from areas that have made poor choices, and they want so much to not go down that path again, and to preserve what we have,” she said. “There’s tremendous interest, energy, and enthusiasm for good land use.”

Judith Lindenau, the executive vice president of the Traverse Area Association of Realtors, said her group supports the new planning process. “Realtors are well aware of the fact that the values we have here in terms of quality of life are certainly under threat. We’d like nothing better as a realtor’s association than to have a clear-cut direction from the community in terms of land use policy and regulation.”

Paul Schmuckal, the president of Schmuckal Oil, thinks that a businesslike approach to the process could help. What is really needed, he said, is a clear timeframe. “You don’t accomplish things in business by delaying,” Mr. Schmuckal said. “One of the biggest things that made Utah successful was setting time frames and staying within them.”

“The environment is something that I value both from a personal perspective and from a business perspective,” concluded Mr. Ness of Munson Medical Center. “Having a nice place to live makes it easy for us to attract staff and physicians to this community. If we were to lose this in the future, it would be much more difficult to recruit staff.”

Carolyn Kelly, a writer and editor specializing in housing and community design, is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s associate editor. Reach her at carolyn@mlui.org.

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