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Small Town Character…or Small Town Politics?

The phrase “small town character” continues to work its way into the vernacular of public discourse in the Traverse City area. It’s a curious if somewhat effective way of shaping the region’s ongoing development debate. After all, who doesn’t embrace the idea of a quaint, safe, quiet and caring community to describe the place called home?

The term “small town politics” projects a much different aura – one many communities try their best to avoid. Small town politics conjures up suspicions of differing rules and norms for various individuals and groups. More attention is paid to who is talking rather than what’s being said. People don different hats during the course of public debate, and various constituencies often find themselves at odds over the path forward.

Most us like to think the Traverse City area outgrew the latter generations ago, even if still clinging to the virtues of “small town” appeal. But in pursuit of one vision, are we backsliding toward the other? The region’s economic strength and impressive rebound from the Great Recession seem to have some on edge that the next big project or initiative will bring everything crashing down around us – even while a century and a half of history tells us something far different.

Consider a pending development proposal in downtown Traverse City next to the city’s most recognizable structure – the Park Place Hotel. After extensive discussion/input with the city, a development plan recently came forward. The city Planning Commission was sharply divided over whether it met the city’s land-use rules. Healthy public debate? More likely it means either the city’s land use rules aren’t sufficiently clear, or those appointed to administer those rules are pursuing a different agenda. Neither are good public policy, and both tinge of small town politics.

Consider too the run-up to next month’s city elections. A subtle but significant message is again working its way into the campaign about the city’s growth and the need to “protect” the city’s neighborhoods. Protect them from what, exactly? Surging property values? Unprecedented worth of city residents’ assets? Expanded tax base to pay for infrastructure improvements throughout the city? Residents of the city’s neighborhoods have benefitted immensely from the growth of the city’s commercial core – not just the downtown, but also business corridors along Munson and Garfield avenues, Union, Eighth and 14th streets, and elsewhere. The city’s commercial growth has helped build two public parking structures to take vehicle parking out of the neighborhoods – and it could use some more. The real ‘threat’ to the neighborhoods will come when downtown and other commercial districts get bogged down and eventually stagnated through red tape, referendums and costly legalities. The good news is it won’t happen overnight. The bad news is it may be happening already.

No one ever wants to acknowledge having a hand in small town politics. Most people will say they are for “responsible” growth – whatever that means. Since its earliest beginnings, Traverse City has been a community pushing forward to be the best it can be, whose better days were always ahead. From building a world-class hospital to a thriving community college, from developing amazing arts and cultural offerings to clearing the spectacular bay front, Traverse City has been a place to embrace bigger and better – never afraid of its success and potential. To openly advocate a change from that course would be a political risk.

Traverse City has been a significant commercial hub in Northern Michigan for more than a century. It’s known across the country – indeed the world – as a premium destination, drawing millions of people annually to enjoy its amenities. It’s also growing as a business hub, and oncoming technology will only hasten that trend. Instead of trying to turn back the clock, its focus needs to be on improving housing options, updating infrastructure, providing for quality child care, supporting world-class education, supporting public transportation, and investing in a host of other community cornerstones. Perhaps it’s time to wipe the “small town character” notion from the community’s lexicon – and dump the small town politics with it.