Home > Economics, Editorial, Parks and Recreation > Traverse City’s Economic Plan (With Placemaking & Resiliency In Mind)

Traverse City’s Economic Plan (With Placemaking & Resiliency In Mind)

EDITOR’S NOTE: For non-Michigan readers, Traverse City is a small, rural town/city in Northern Michigan with a population of 14,500 +/- with a greater regional population of 80-100 thousand.  We struggle between thinking we are bigger than we actually are and seeing our small-size as an excuse that supports slow, incremental change.


Part I

Today, more rifting from the Strong Towns BLOG. This time from their series on the coming fiscal crunch facing small cities & towns. As Commissioner Mike Gillman likes to remind Traverse City, we also have some financial concerns; but who doesn’t? His focus is pensions, my focus is place-making; we need attention to both.

We need citizens, commissioners and staffers, to understand that spending to develop a city that is more equitable, inclusive and resilient is part of the solution. Simultaneously, we need to stop the spending on items that detract from that end and only cost us in terms of money and opportunity. Strong Towns posted a checklist of 10 Starter Strategies for Strong Towns. These are actions that local governments need to be doing and below is the list with short, local context provided as I understand it. Traverse City is on the right track on many items on this list, we’re “not in a crisis.” of course, we could be doing a whole lot betterI could be wrong.

Please take seriously the request at the end to contribute to the discussion.

Here are some thoughts on the first 5 actions, with the final five actions to follow later today.

The Strong Town’s 10-Step Action Program 1-5:

1) Five Year Budget: Plot the known expenses, expect the unknowns and be honest & transparent about legacy costs of new projects. Traverse City has been fiscally responsible enough that we understand the 5 year budgeting idea, however, publicly at least, staff is bullish about long-term costs and income. Example, staff still believe that public parking pays for itself.

With parking in mind and under this action, I’d also reconsider items like the parking subsidy for city employees. Even at the discounted rate that the DDA charges, this adds up to between 30-50 thousand dollars that the city gives away for free. The revenue generated from the governmental center parking lot could be dedicated for annual sidewalk projects.

Or, city staff could walk. That’s a win either way.


2)Base Line Workload Analysis: What is staff doing that is required vs. not required? How can staff be more effective? This includes analysis of management as well as other staff. This process is underway at the staff and city commission level. The COFAC report was aimed squarely at this question. Although, at times the outcome of this report focuses more on simple downsizing rather than being effective.

A proactive approach across the board would include creating incentives for staff to be creative & meet mission driven goals. There are likely other examples with more punch and I know the city commission has discussed different staffing priorities over the past two-years. In addition, regional cost sharing for services needs to be pursued. The effort for the City to join the Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department to share service is a concept worth doing.

Regional cost sharing/consolidation of services is also key feature to the new governor’s direction.


3) Real Capital Improvements Plan: Traverse City has a 30-year deficit of investing in our infrastructure. The result is potholes, broken/incomplete sidewalks, bridges in need of repair and even water-pipes in dire need. The result is that everything is rushed,  piecemeal and often opportunistic rather than strategic.

We are ahead of the curve in that we have a sense of our maintenance commitments and hence the City adopted an infrastructure policy (PDF) committed to spending $1-million annually to address the issue. The problem with Traverse City’s approach is that 1) it’s too little, too late 2) the focus is to maintain, not improve, and 3) the priorities of staff often aren’t inline with the values of the community (see #2). (Yes, that’s an 8th Street jab).

In the late 1990’s, Bob Otwell, the former executive director of TART Trails, calculated how many years it would take to complete the sidewalk gap at the then current spending. The calculation approached 400 years to complete 8-miles of sidewalk gaps. We don’t have 20 years, let alone 400.

This relates to the CIP (capital improvement plan) because too often the CIP is treated as a wish list and only accurate for a year out, yet written for 5-6 years. The planning commission is attempting to strengthen it and we will need to advocate hard for a more balanced approach to priorities to shorten that 400-year time horizon. We’ve already seen improvements in the sidewalk department with the addition of the relatively recent Woodmere Ave. and planned improvements on Elmwood Ave., Kelly & S. Barlow in 2011, but $100,000 to invest in walkability is still too little.


4) Form-Based Code throughout the historic neighborhoods: We have a lot of potential in the region in implementing form-based Codes. James Bruckbauer, transportation specialist at MLUI, has been singing the praises of Suttons Bay as a national model for small-town form-based code standards (FBC-101) since he rolled into town last summer. He also sees evidence of it in Traverse City.

Just walking around town, it appears to me that TC emphasizes design more than many other cities of its size. Not many cities were placing buildings out to the sidewalk in the 90’s and early 2000’s.  You had to have some relatively forward-thinking, and influential planners working with good developers back in the day,” he wrote in an email.

The next step is moving it beyond the incremental. Applying form-based codes to our corridors may be the first full embrace. A recent HUD grant may help that cause. From what I understand of the issue, FBCs make sense for a community that wants to build adaptability, mixed use and be more effective in determining the intentional design of a place.


5) New road and street standards: We are getting there; the enthusiasm for complete streets and context sensitive design in the public sphere makes up for any lack of enthusiasm among staff. Still, getting ahead of the implementation remains the key ingredient.

For the past year I’ve been involved in a planning commission subcommittee writing the transportation elements section for the master plan. There is strong support for moving beyond simple mobility when we consider street standards. Street designs can enhance or distract from the adjacent properties–nothing is a given though and it is a choice. Still, the default ideology to subsidize speed over place and efficiency remains a fight.

As Colbert would say scream, “constant vigilance!”


Part II will follow later this morning. The main goal here is to stimulate discussion and an open sharing of knowledge & perspectives. In particular, if you serve on a board, commission or local organization working on any or all of these issues please share your voice.


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  1. February 2, 2011 at 10:52 am

    Gary: I appreciate your post. You could be right.


  2. February 2, 2011 at 11:09 am

    Gary: I volunteer on the Light & Power board. Just wanted to point out that the Light & Power Department also has a six-year Capital Improvement Plan that is updated annually (and sent to the City Commission for approval).

    It has been my experience that L&P’s Capital Improvement Plan is more than a wish-list. The biggest challenge with Capital Improvements seems to be how long it takes to put all applicable pieces in place to implement the planned improvements.

    Mike Coco

  3. February 2, 2011 at 11:23 am

    Thank you for the comments, Mike. Is this TCLP-CIP readily available for citizen perusal? I just did a quick search and can’t seem to locate it.

  4. February 2, 2011 at 11:34 am

    Gary: I just searched myself and also did not find it. 😦 Busted. And duly noted.


  5. February 2, 2011 at 11:39 am

    Gary: I should add that L&P staff are working on creating an new and improved website.


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