Growing Business. Building Community.

‘We Have Met the Enemy – and He is Us’

The headline is from a 1970 Earth Day poster featuring the comic strip character Pogo, famously paraphrased by cartoonist Walt Kelly from Commodore Perry’s historic dispatch after defeating the British Fleet in the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812.

It’s also an apt description of the ongoing community debate over development opportunities in downtown Traverse City. As the Grand Traverse region continues to attract new investment and builds on an impressive long-term trend of economic growth, local decision makers seem to face more challenges than ever in maintaining that positive momentum.

A recent decision by Grand Traverse County commissioners to balk at a state environmental clean-up loan to pursue a long-planned, much-discussed public parking deck to serve the west end of downtown Traverse City is the latest example of a community that at times seems to struggle with its success. Investments and partnerships that communities across Michigan would bend over backwards to attract are greeted with suspicion – even disdain. Effective strategies with a 25-year track record of local success are questioned and doubted, generating storm clouds on the economic horizon.

Much of this isn’t new. Forces have fought the downtown’s economic revival before the city opened its first public parking deck on East Front Street in 2003. Fortunately, local leaders displayed the courage to follow the city’s ordinances, plans and policies. The results have been nothing short of amazing, to the point where even the most-ardent critics will acknowledge our community’s success.

So what’s changed? Nothing – and a lot. Nothing has changed in that the downtown still needs west side parking, it needs more diversification in its retail offerings, and it lacks housing options. It has numerous sites that remain polluted, ugly and underutilized. It needs more development density to combat regional sprawl.

What’s different is that forces working to maintain the status quo have become more sophisticated in their efforts. Realizing that a “no growth” agenda is a non-starter with most people, they pivoted to a “freeze frame” approach – a mindset that “things are good now, but they can only get worse.” It’s a stealthily massaged message that plays into a general mistrust of government. It suggests that economic development tools like brownfield funding for environmental site work and tax increment financing for public infrastructure – both effectively utilized in the community for decades – have somehow morphed into “developer subsidies” or “corporate welfare.”

Worse yet, these incentives are now being tied to completely unrelated budget challenges faced by the county, school district and other municipalities. People need to understand that our local governments have more money in their coffers today because of city and county economic development policies – and will collect far more revenue in the future.

The truth stretching doesn’t stop there. Another plank in the “freeze frame” platform is that the downtown is “too crowded” – an argument oblivious to the city’s history. Downtown density is far less today than it was 50 or 60 years ago. Another is to vilify “out of town” developers allegedly here to make a fast buck and move on – also a curious point of view given the number of downtown projects created by people who have been our friends and neighbors for years.

It’s one thing for a community’s economy to be hampered by global political or economic upheaval, a housing or tech bubble or other factors out of its local control. It’s quite another for a region to economically shoot itself in the foot by abandoning effective and proven economic development strategies because of a lack of understanding or misinformation. There are enough obstacles facing a community working to grow a sustainable, year-round economy in a volatile and uncertain world. We don’t need to be our own worst enemy, and let the good that’s been accomplished become the enemy of the greatness within reach.

  • Kimberly Pontius

    Thanks Doug for your insight and your candor. I for one am really perplexed by the fascinating shift we seem to be making from the discussions around the Grand Vision just a few years back to what we are hearing today. All I can base it on is the economy. When times are tough it seems like people are more willing to try something different. When times are more prosperous it seems like people are more content to retain the status quo or reverse the progress thats been acheived.