On a cold night in mid-December, Front Street in Traverse City resembles a university town on football game day. It is Men’s Night, an annual pre-Christmas shopping event when downtown stores stay open late, serve alcohol and appetizers, and entice young men into their retail space with ladies dancing (tastefully and clothed) in the windows. Parking spaces are hard to find on Men’s Night, and the boisterous laughter and clinking beer glasses would have drowned out the foghorn of a ship seeking safe harbor in West Grand Traverse Bay.
Traverse City, this resort town of 15,000 in northwest lower Michigan, which perennially wins beauty contests thanks to its location at the foot of both Grand Traverse Bays, is enjoying a cultural and culinary renaissance. Every block seems to boast a dynamic and creative restaurant; wineries dot Old Mission Peninsula to the north and the Leelanau Peninsula to the west; over half a dozen local micro-breweries have made northern Michigan a beer destination, and young, local musicians croon from nearly every café and pub. Millennials, that prized demographic of 20- and 30-somethings that have fled Michigan by the tens of thousands in recent decades, are returning to Traverse City and opening breweries, launching music festivals and joining the Chamber of Commerce.
Community elders who remember Traverse City’s industrial days, when a power plant and canning factory still dominated the shoreline promenade, could be forgiven for no longer recognizing their town. Long gone are the days when visitors to Traverse City came only to camp, fish and hunt. Nowadays, their replacements travel north to shop, eat, drink and party. The tourism season no longer shuts off like a light switch at the end of Labor Day weekend and remains quiet until the following Memorial Day. For those elders, Traverse City’s renaissance has created growing pains.
The rift between those who pine for a quieter Traverse City and those who embrace what it has become crystalized this fall after Lou Colombo, a 75-year-old resident, entered City Hall and attempted to reserve the prized “Open Space” along West Grand Traverse Bay for the entire summer of 2014. What would his event be called? “The Quiet Festival.” How many would attend? “Nobody.” Colombo was articulating his displeasure with the numerous festivals in the Open Space, which he believe, monopolized the public space all summer long. In his view, the Open Space ought to be available for people to jog, picnic, toss Frisbees and admire the view. His protest set off a debate about “festival fatigue” which has dominated public discourse and led the City Council in mid-December to reduce the maximum number of summer festivals at the Open Space from six to four.
Tourism, which forms the backbone of the local economy, has become a year-round industry. According to a study commissioned by Traverse City Tourism, The town attracted 3.3 million visitors in 2012. Tourism generated a total economic impact of $1.23 billion — a 28 percent increase over 2006. According to a study by the Anderson Economic Group, nearly 30 percent of local jobs are directly tied to tourism.
Even after the sailboats and paddleboards leave the water, after families return home for the school year, off-season festivals continue to attract visitors during the cold and dark months. On Feb. 8, Traverse City will host a Microbrew & Music Festival in the space otherwise occupied by the downtown farmers market. On Feb. 13-16, filmmaker Michael Moore’s TC Winter Comedy Arts Festival will return to the State Theatre and other venues. The Comedy Festival is an offshoot of Moore’s better-known Traverse City Film Festival, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2014.
Paramount among Traverse City’s festivals is the National Cherry Festival, which started in 1925 and expanded in 1968 from three to eight days. But the festival, which attracts more than 500,000 revelers to the area and generates an estimated $26 million annually, uses the Open Space for 14 straight days each July, including the time required to set up and tear down tents and equipment.
Since its launch in 2005, the Traverse City Film Festival has also used the Open Space for six days in late July and early August to show free, family-friendly outdoor movies at night. The vista of sailboats rocking to the waves at night forms a majestic backdrop behind the giant inflatable movie screen.
Since 2010, Porterhouse Productions has also held a two-day Paella in the Park festival in the Open Space. Event organizer Sam Porter, who is 37, is among those boomerangs who grew up in Traverse City, sought greener pastures as a young adult, and recently returned to raise a family and join the cultural renaissance. Porterhouse Productions has organized nearly 200 events in town, some to support altruistic causes such as raising money for bike trails.
But the last straw for Colombo and other locals suffering from the seemingly endless event calendar may have been a Christian rock festival over Labor Day weekend that projected thumping bass music throughout town and allegedly could be heard 10 miles up the coast.
A neighborhood on edge
Colombo’s Central Neighborhood sits just south of Front Street, a stone’s throw from the Open Space. It’s just east of the Grand Traverse Commons at the site of the old State Hospital, which has itself been redeveloped to include restaurants, wineries, retail shops, office spaces and residential units. For the last five years, the Commons has also hosted a Microbrew & Music Festival put on by Porterhouse Productions.
For Seamus Shinners, president of the Central Neighborhood Association, the lack of access to the Commons, and the noise and crowds during festivals, has simply been too much for him and his neighbors to handle. He admits that the split over festivals falls largely along generational lines.
“We can’t lose sight of the fact that this Open Space was created and maintained by the taxpayers of Traverse City,” says Shinners. “When you disregard what time music starts and ends, and the volume at which it’s played, then it wakes up old farts like me out of our rocking chairs.” Around the time many of Shinners’ neighbors are going to sleep, he says, the music ends, sending hundreds of young people walking through the neighborhood, often loud, often drunk.
But festival advocates, including website designer and former festival promoter Andy McFarlane, question whether those who favor limiting festivals aren’t a vocal minority with outsized political influence. Festivals are vital to both the tourism economy and the city’s growing reputation as a culinary destination, he says. “These festivals bring money into Traverse City that we can’t ignore.”
Sarah Nicholls, an associate professor in the Departments of Community Sustainability and Geography at Michigan State University, says no one can argue that large festivals such as the Cherry Festival and Film Festival haven’t had a tremendous economic impact on Traverse City. But, she adds, it’s not always easy to quantify the impact of smaller festivals. The key to measuring economic impact is to count tourists from out of town who came specifically for a particular event, and not locals or people who would have been in Traverse City already, soaking up the summer sun.
“This is the dilemma of any great tourism town,” says Nicholls. “The visitors also realize this is fabulous place to be, and they impact the lives of residents who can’t get a parking space or a seat at their favorite restaurant or bar.”
But McFarlane says “locals” from neighboring towns who attend festivals large and small should also be noted in calibrating the economic and social benefits to Traverse City. He points out that Traverse City is the nation’s seventh biggest “micropolitan area” – demographer geekspeak for growing, often culturally inclined communities far from big cities. “What about the people who come from Leland and Frankfort to attend a particular festival?” he asks. “If they’re coming to a microbrew festival, they’re coming to spend money. This grows the economic development pie, too.”
Though the festival debate has sometimes slipped into acrimony at city council meetings and in the media, James Bruckbauer, a transportation policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute, said the debate is healthy for a city contemplating its future.
“Of course we need to balance the desire for many in the community to have festivals with the needs and concerns of local residents who are attracted to the small-town character,” says Bruckbauer. “The challenge for the city will be to find that balance. But it’s also an opportunity to talk about how we want to design our community. Can we shape it to reduce congestion so more people can walk, bike and take public transportation?”
For example, the Land Use Institute is working with area transportation officials to determine how public transit can reduce downtown traffic during festivals. One solution could be to encourage festivalgoers to park their car in nearby Suttons Bay, Kingsley or Acme and then ride the bus to Traverse City.
“As Traverse City grows and as congestion increases, we must make the decision either to widen our roads to accommodate more traffic, or help people get around with bikes and buses, and reduce traffic for our neighbors,” says Bruckbauer.
It’s a challenge, of course, that most Michigan communities would relish. Bruckbauer says someone once told him, “Traverse City is place where you can enjoy the outdoor lifestyle that rivals that of the East or West Coast. But here you can take a risk, start a business and actually afford to live here.”
When the Traverse City Council voted 5-2 in December to limit festivals, the two dissenting votes came from Gary Howe and Tim Werner, both newly elected in November and considered among the new generation of leaders in town. Howe publishes the influential blog My Wheels Are Turning, which advocates for street policies that are friendly to bicycles and pedestrians. The crowd at their Nov. 5 election victory party at the hip InsideOut Gallery in the revitalized warehouse district was filled with city progressive leaders, from nonprofit activists to fair trade coffee roasters.
Hardly surprising, given that Traverse City’s emergence as a cultural destination is usually traced to the film festival founded by Moore, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker and progressive firebrand. (See accompanying interview with Moore.) The region’s cachet was burnished nationally by New York City celebrity chef Mario Batali, who has a summer home in the region and has frequently proselytized about the food scene. Howe’s and Werner’s presence on the council could one day represent a changing of the guard.
Instead of focusing on eliminating certain festivals, Howe advocates strengthening the city’s oversight of these events to maintain public access to the space. Festivals and other events, he says, should be managed to “accentuate our parks as public spaces instead of dominating them.”
In the end, Howe says, festivals should be about more than the money they make for the community. They can also enhance the character of the place. “They create interactions, both social and economic, that are almost impossible to map out and quantify,” he says. “All the activity in the last 10 years has certainly combined to add a vitality to this small city and has created opportunities and connections that weren’t there before.”