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The Bayfront Plan And The Little Train: Muddling Forward


I’ve been directly involved with the Bayfront Plan Implementation since January 2010. As a parks and recreation commissioner I’ve served on the previous and current ad hoc steering committee tasked with working with staff and design teams. It hasn’t been a perfect process (wouldn’t expect it to be) and yet it has been one of the most open, transparent and inclusive that I’ve ever seen in Traverse City. I certainly didn’t see everything I championed included and many of the elements/designs desired were watered down. Still, I trust the process and that the real value-added details have yet to be designed. An element I’m really enthused about is the water feature using the artesian well that will be named after former Governor William Milliken (IPR).

The Goal: Creating a destination where people linger

Disinterested Commissioners Suddenly Champions For Train

Of course, as we are about to begin phase I at Clinch Park much of that work and enthusiasm is being put at risk because of the Save the Train movement’s ability to shift what were previously disinterested city commissioners–where were these commissioners’ declarations that the train must stay last year? They were invited to public & private charrettes; they could have come to ad-hoc or full parks and recreation meetings. They had more opportunity than anyone to make comments and be involved. They chose not to and then approved the plan to move forward. Earlier this spring, they also approved the latest request for proposal (RFP) for Clinch that specifically did not include the train in the plan.

The Spirit may derail more than itself (photo via Record Eagle)

Of course, history is lost in the world of public process when it doesn’t serve someone’s current needs. Although still a bit murky (we have stated opinions of city commissioners, no specific record of action) the train will get a second opportunity to remain at Clinch Park. Last night (REagle), it was requested that the design firm hired for phase I, Hamilton-Anderson, include in the process options to make the train work at Clinch Park.

This will be difficult for me; I’m not a champion to keep the train at Clinch Park. I’m convinced that keeping the train severely limits our opportunities at Clinch Park for the next 50 years. Any new recommendations to keep at Clinch will need to meet high standards and not degrade what I think could be a place for everyone to enjoy. I’ve shared as much with people who’ve contacted me and with the city commission.  Below is my last letter to the city commission in support of moving ahead without the train…Obviously, it had little impact.

We boldly cautiously move forward.


Dear City Commissioners and Staff,

I was part of last year’s bayfront planning committee and we did discuss the train-at length. The design/engineering firm played with many ideas and in the end couldn’t make it fit with all the other elements and goals that came out of an exhaustive public process. Note, a process that included many volunteer hours by a lot of people. Not once during that time was there a large outcry demanding the City to design around the train. In fact, most people were indifferent, if not supportive of moving forward without the train. You won’t hear from many of them, but not everyone thinks we need a train down there. Below is a list of just a few of the meetings where the public had opportunities to publicly comment.

It isn’t that the train is completely incompatible for what the bayfront plan calls for at Clinch, anything can be engineered, but it does create severe limitations for what many feel are minimal gains. The train offers a 10 minute experience in one season and on certain days out of the year for a limited clientele. The attempt of the bayfront plan, and it isn’t there yet, is to create a place that captures more people and allows more freedom of movement, experience and programming over a longer time. The Clinch Park area, conceptually being called the Con Foster Commons, can be a much improved place that sees more use year-round.

With the train and all its requirements, the configuration of trails, walkways, play areas and parking, as well as the location of the bathhouse are all compromised to allow for the train’s use. Basically, what type of place we can create is limited by the trains footprint and the context it creates. I feel the same way about the abundance of parking down on the bay, but parking was clearly stated as an untouchable unremovable element during the process. We managed a compromise by reconfiguring some of the parking lot, conceptually anyway, to provide potential plaza space during events. I still don’t understand how it makes sense to have a parking lot on some of the most valued property in the City, but it was made clear that parking couldn’t be substantially reduced or moved.

The train also has a large footprint. I said 20 feet width at last night’s meeting because I include the usable space around it. The real footprint, as the parks superintendent pointed out is only 8 feet, but the space around it that is usable and able to be used for other activities/designs is more like 20 if not more…are you having a picnic next to the train? As well, there are many people who have expressed that the fumes created spread much further and aren’t appreciated. I’ll grant train supporters that there is also a highway next to the park, but some of that is also mitigated if the Bayfront plan continues to be followed.

The train is not now part of the bayfront plan and I’m not a champion for it to be made a part of it. If it is the city manager’s, parks superintendent’s or city commission’s directive that the train must remain at Clinch each of those entities must realize the limitations they are placing on the design and/or the extra costs that decision will create. I remind you though, the city manager, the parks superintendent, and all the city commissioners were invited to participate in last year’s public design meetings and had all year to speak-up about the train.

Thank you for your time.

Gary Howe
Traverse CIty, MI

Some of the public meetings where the train could have been or was discussed:

  • March 23-25, 2010 – Bayfront Charrette
  • March 30,, 2010 – Northwest Michigan Disability Network
  • April 9, 2010 – CGD and Nate Elkins on Mary in the Morning
  • May 11, 2010 – Central Neighborhood Association
  • May 16, 2010- Kids Creek Commons Neighborhood Association
  • May 18, 2010-Recreational Authority
  • May 19, 2010 – Joint Recreation Association
  • May 19, 2010-Planning Commission/Parks & Recreation
  • May 20, 2010- Old Town Neighborhood
  • May 21, 2010 – DDA
  • May 24, 2010 – Kiwanis
  • May 24, 2010 – City Commission
  • May 25, 2010 – Northwest Michigan Disability Network
  • June 1, 2010 – Slab Town Neighborhood
  • July 16, 2010 – DDA
  • July 19, 2010 – City Commission
  • July 27, 2010 – Rotary Club
  • August 8, 2010 – City Planning Commission
  • September 7, 2010 – City Commission (approved plan)
  1. Jarome
    July 19, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    What do you know about history, and family values, nothing. The whole process is being directed by a group of yuppies carrying leather purses. Or is it called a french shoulder bag? Why don’t you place a gay rainbow arch over the entrance?

  2. Steve Wagner
    July 19, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    What you are designing will wind up being just another antiseptic park that will look nice as we whiz by on Grandview but will be otherwise unused except during special events such as Cherry Fest air shows. Anyone daring to cross the street will be going to the beach or their boat. But then that is what the redevelopment is really about-removing the zoo, train, etc. so that the yacht owners won’t have to mix with commoners as they make their way to the bay.

  3. Katie
    July 20, 2011 at 7:41 am

    What? Why this animosity about the Bayfront plan? And why now? Many people have spent many hours, in many meetings over a long time period, to put together a very positive, visionary plan. Keeping the train is clearly untenable for the many reasons Gary has outlined above. Clinging to it makes no sense whatever. Moving Traverse City forward in terms of bay front improvements for all, will by definition mean that some things change. When properly done, change is good. This was done properly. The change will be good. Hopefully City Commission will indeed realize the importance of retaining and respecting the original bay front plan, which includes no train. To do otherwise at this point clearly sends a message of reactionary, narrow thinking rather than clear, forward-looking leadership and commitment.

  4. LoverNotHater
    July 20, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    I think a rainbow arch at the mouth of the tunnel is a great idea. It will let people know that everyone is welcome and have the added benefit of letting you and all the other sour mouthed pissants know to check your hate at the door!!

  5. Jeff
    July 31, 2011 at 10:43 pm

    What Gary did not mention is that they failed to contact the only person in the area who has the background, knowledge and skill to be a credible source to find out what the train needs. It is his and others on the Bay Front Planning Committee and Parks and Rec Commission to do this, not the public’s responsibility to make sure they did this.

    The City owns the train. It collects the income from the train. It pays the expenses and everyone who works on the train is a City employee. It is a City owned attraction and not a “special interest” so therefore it is the City’s responsibility (Bay Front Planning Committee and Parks and Rec Commission) to obtain a credible source and information. They did not do this at all.

    The City failed to get a credible source for input on the train, failed to put the plans that did not include the train (the very last plans that were approved, the train was on all the plans up until this last one) on the City’s page and did not update the train’s page with saying that this is the last year for the train until early July 2011.

    Yes people spent hours on this, however barely any of them can give a credible answer why the train was removed. I received 8 reasons from 8 different people and each one said the others were wrong about the reason. No one could provide any information to back up each reason. Other officials even said some of the reasons were just wrong.
    It is apparent that the people who made this decision have no knowledge or background about the train so why would we trust their judgment? It would be like trusting them to tell us if an airplane is safe to fly. Does not make sense.

    Many people who ride the train also come back to ride again. It ranges from small kids to grandparents. It is open late May through early September. The splash pads can’t be open much beyond that due to weather and tourist season not being strong. These new features won’t bring in any money so the local taxpayers will foot the bill for maintenance, upkeep, winterizing, and repairing. However with the train, it is claimed that expenses are slightly greater than income (by about $5,000) so the taxpayers don’t need to foot much for the upkeep.
    If you want to get picky, Hickory Hills is also losing money and I was told that the Marina is maybe just barely breaking even, if that. What does the City own that actually makes money?

    There are beaches about 100 feet away. Why would people come to a splash pad park when there are beaches near by? Why not keep the train to help draw people to the park? Why not talk to those who would be credible sources for what the train needs and not just making decisions because “it doesn’t fit.” when no one has any credible information.

  6. Jeff
    August 2, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    On Wednesday, July 20, 2011 the City instructed the train workers to NOT direct people/the public to the facebook page set up to help save and keep the train at Clinch Park.

    The City has also not published any information or reasons why the train was removed from the plans nor have they published anything that says how to help keep the train at Clinch Park. The train’s page was updated in early July 2011 (more than a month into the trains running season) to say, “2011 – This may be the last year for the train. A public input process to design the bayfront lead to the development of the Bayfront Plan, which at this time does not include the train.” No information on why the train was removed or how to be involved to keep it.

    The City has also instructed the train workers to NOT post any signs at the train that say this is the train’s last year at Clinch Park. The City also does not allow the “City’s little train will be derailed” front page article which ran in the Saturday, May 28, 2011 Record Eagle to be posted up by the train. The City also does not allow the train workers to have a guest book for tourists to sign. There has been some disagreement about the draw of the train and how far people come and ride the train. The workers are not allowed to keep a record of this according to the City.

    So how is the public supposed to find any information about the train?

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