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Moving Forward With or Without The Spirit

September 12, 2011

NOTE: Comments were disabled for this post, but comments are still open at the previous post


With today’s post, I’m not intending to get into an online debate about the issues raised over Traverse City’s train ride debate at Clinch Park. Tonight, the City Commission will have their say, take public comment and a way forward may become clear. I would, however, like to offer perspective to some of the comments made here over the weekend.

First, a reminder: The City Commission Study Session discussing Clinch Park and the Train is tonight at 7pm. Come to show your interest or send commissioners a message on your preferred direction if unable to attend. Also, a late addition to tonight’s discussion is the summer’s other big discussion item, a proposed shoreline clearing on the far west end of the bayfront.

View tonight’s packer below or here for a new browser view.

The Spirit of Traverse City on free ride day. (Photo GLHJR)

Items to address:

Park Costs: The cost of maintaining the future park is indeed an item to be addressed, but as a community we risk being “penny-wise, pound-short” if we the allow this concern to hold back bayfront improvements. Great park systems create economic revenue and vitality for communities, not diminish it. The bayfront plan is the fiscal responsible action to take during these perceived poor economic times. Contractors are bidding low and in low economic times we should do what smart business do–invest in our future. An intentional and inviting park system will attract the entrepreneurs and investors for our economic future.

Still, financial concerns have been a concern from the start. I’ve asked repeatedly for everyone to be aware of life-cycle costs with an aim at designing resilient amenities that may cost more upfront but require less care. As well, the attempt is to make improvements in phases that make the most economic sense, beginning with the foundations for later additions. The plan you see tonight will not be completed fully in 2012. The goal is also to design flexible amenities that can more easily change in the future. In addition, there are planning discussions taking place for future costs savings as well as revenue sources.

Train Costs: Cost wasn’t a major issue at last year’s discussions. It was discussed, but not at length because it’s true that the train ride isn’t a major subsidy of the City. That said, it has been underfunded in both terms of programing, park amenities serving it and safety. As a result ridership has fallen and, despite staff assurances that it is safe, public perception at seeing kids thrown on the lawn after a derailment are a tough image to accept. This is made more challenging when the report from staff is, “we aren’t certain why it derailed.” If the train stays, it needs a jolt of investment and an increased level of professionalism.

Train Ride Relocation: It is also correct that there are not many good solutions to relocating the train within the City. The parks and recreation, with the assistance of the engineering firm URS, did make an exploratory attempt at other locations, but with other items on our plate it was not an urgency. Sometimes things move slowly simply because there are no man hours to put towards something, whether they are staff or volunteer hours.

Back in the spring the parks and rec commission was asked to make a final decision about the train in Clinch park. We recommended that the city come up with a plan to remove it, including what the choices were for its repurposing. We were waiting for recommendations from the city manager or superintendent on the future choices concerning the train’s future when the city commission started to hear from the save the train group and their decisions brought us to the latest stage.

Bayfront Planning Process: As far as the process in the spring of 2010 is concerned, I couldn’t disagree more with the assertions by many who don’t even live in the City or the region. The launch of the Bayfront Plan in 2010 was one of the most public processes I’ve seen. I’m not saying it was perfect, but I’ve seen a lot worse. If someone was passionate about something on the bayfront and they were interested in contributing, they had ample opportunities–over 40 public meetings in a 4-5 month period, all of them well publicized. The meetings that occurred in late April, May and June all had the train removed. In fact, there was a joint commission and parks and rec meeting over the winter about the prioritization of the bayfront implementation. The train was removed in the plan presented and not a single commissioner raised it as an issue.

The Spirit of TC train ride is indeed city owned and city staff were well represented throughout the process. I’m not certain what did or didn’t happen internally amongst staff in relation to any specific staff member being invited regarding the train. I do know that we had a highly capable engineering & landscape architecture firm working with the park’s superintendent with the different alignments, conflicts and over-all “fit” of the train with the activities and planned future space.

Since the train experts have been involved, the detailed information has not led to any great breakthroughs regarding the over-all park space. In a meeting I recently attended where the main train engineer was present, he was able to only speak to the rail radius and the engine. When asked what amenities an improved park could have to better serve the train ride nothing was offered.

• Conclusion: I’m convinced, even more so after the process over the last year and a half and considering the copious amount of detailed train information I’ve since received, that it is time to let it go from Clinch Park. The momentum to re-imagine the bayfront isn’t coming out of a small group of people; it is a result of a huge citizen engagement process conducted over the last 6-10 years. We may not like some major, or even minor, points of the plan but doing nothing at this point is no longer an option. We have a plan that is built to grow and change with different interpretations as we move forward, and yet still honor the public process that created it.

One thing is certain, Traverse City is moving forward with or without the train. We will soon know which. 


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