Traverse City splits over festival fatigue

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.

Four-season tourism

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.”

Generational split

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.”


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Mon, 01/20/2014 - 3:30pm
I know that I might be a little biased because Jacob, the author, is a dear friend, but this really is one of the most comprehensive reports on this subject that I've read. He really did a great job of talking to everyone on both sides of the issue, as well as bringing in lots of facts and statistics on how tourism affects NMI, and also how we don't always know how much tourism affects NMI. Better data gathering is a great way to help resolve these issues, and I hope that somebody does more studies on tourism and the generational divide in the coming years. Thanks again to Bridge for publishing this piece, and thanks to Jacob for doing such a great job with it! And I love the quote from Gary Howe at the end of this article about "enhancing character" and "creating interactions"... let's hope that T.C. can move toward that.
Dan Pearson
Mon, 01/20/2014 - 5:16pm
A very good article about the issue, yes. But the headline is really misleading, doesn't reflect the body of the article (or, I believe, the intent of the city commission) and sets the wrong tone for readers who, in this age of short attention spans, may only read it or a small part of the article.
david zeman
Mon, 01/20/2014 - 10:01pm
Dan, We agreed, and changed the headline. Fair point and good catch.
Sun, 01/26/2014 - 6:15am
So what was the title originally?
Bob Schwartz
Thu, 07/24/2014 - 11:05am
Probably what's in the URL.
vic mccarty
Mon, 01/20/2014 - 6:15pm
Funny how It's Michael Moore's comedy festival but traverse city is hosting the microbrewery festival
Mon, 01/20/2014 - 6:52pm
Not funny at all. Moore does what Moore does best, play off the idiots around him to promote his own limited talents in effort to satisfy his own self centered interests. He is what he would like to convince others he is not - an opportunistic capitalist.
Don Emerson
Tue, 01/21/2014 - 10:19am
Don't be a hater. The State Theater and the Film Festival have been great additions to Traverse City. Moore deserves a lot of credit for helping to revitalize Traverse City, especially the downtown area, even if you don't agree with his politics.
Chuck Lockwood
Sat, 07/05/2014 - 5:26pm
I trust you didn't hold back...
Wed, 01/22/2014 - 5:52pm
Yes indeed. Seems like most of the country has also lost site of the fact Michael was a G.M. employee who embraced disability benefits without disability. Just a disgruntled employee who actions helped bring down the union by abusing the system he felt abused him. His rationale is usually skewed to his own needs. Truly baffled Hollywood finds him worth listening to.
Tue, 01/21/2014 - 8:31am
I am a Traverse City native and have lived here, with the exception of my college and graduate years, all of my 59 years. Yes, the traffic and congestion are at bit much at times, but it beats the alternative. Much of the what's good about our little town is the work of our forward thinking and enlightened City Planner, Russ Soyring who lead the charge a number of years ago to revise our zoning ordinance which has truly lead to TC being a regional center.
William Plumpe
Tue, 01/21/2014 - 9:02am
It's a tough call to say the least. I lived in Ann Arbor for many years and remember when the Art Fair was just a few booths by the Natural History Museum. Of course over the years it has expanded exponentially and is now a very large and very important major festival. But even before I left about 25 years ago the Ann Arbor Art Festival was becoming too large and too commercial. To this day I dislike"tourists" of any type even if they bring money and jobs to my community. But as long as things don't get out of hand and festival promoters pay up front for extra government services like police and fire and trash pick up I'm OK. Enough said.
Matt Dykema
Mon, 01/27/2014 - 2:10pm
Go back to Ann Arbor then. In 2012 tourism generated over 3.3 million visitor trips to Traverse City, producing nearly $1.2 billion in direct spending and supporting (directly and indirectly) more than 12,000 jobs across the Traverse City area – about 30 percent of all employment in the region — and contributing about $67 million in state use and sales taxes. Those figures reflect a growth rate of some 4.5 percent per year in the economic contribution made by Traverse City’s tourism economy since 2006, when a similar study showed a total economic impact of $937 million.
Genevieve DeHaven
Tue, 01/21/2014 - 9:07am
As I have often said before, there seems to be a whole bunch of folks that moved here from somewhere else and are spending much of their time and downstate earned monies to turn "here" into what they left behind. I miss our quaint little zoo (Yes, I understand moving the zoo was best for the animals because of the road noise and congestion), the buffalo along Division, the small town midwestern feeling that was here is slowly being replaced. It seems that there is an abundance of people who want to change Traverse City. Move the Cherry Festival they say, put in a splash pad they said, make a fancy marina..yeah that's good too. Meanwhile, boats are anchored so close to our swimming areas that not only can we ALL hear their music blaring, their loud and often profane conversations but we can smell their fuel and see the pretty rainbows they leave floating on our waters. But we are loosing our identity; not just to ourselves but our children as well. I too came here from elsewhere. I came from 45 minutes outside of Midtown Manhattan; on the Jersey side. I saw first hand what the pursuit of the tourists dollars can and have done to towns; think Atlantic City. Paramus, NJ mega mall mecca; people give directions via proximity to which mall; the concept of "neighborhood" has long been replaced. Put in a "Bark Park"??? What the heck is that anyway? It has become ()where we used to honor our veterans) a nasty disease filled muddy mess. (yes, Bordella in puppies can be fatal).... So we need to ask what we are becoming who we really are or are we pandering to famous named folks, and deep pockets. From where I sit, in Old Town while the rest of us are working our jobs; meetings are being held that determine our future because we are too busy trying to keep "today" on the plate.
Paul Smyth
Tue, 01/21/2014 - 9:20am
It is wonderful to see our friend Jacob Wheeler writing for The Bridge. And I was pleased to see Robert's deserved praise of Russ Soyring, who is truly a gifted planning director. We moved to downtown TC in 2008 and view our spot as just about perfect except.....except......for the festival mania. In fact, during the Cherry Festival we just head for the UP. I would never advocate eliminating any existing festival, but those who are suggesting we may have reached a saturation point are on the right track.
Penni Weninger
Tue, 01/21/2014 - 12:08pm
Just my two cents from Grand Rapids: I think of Traverse City and the Peninsula as one of God's gifts - a very special and beautiful place. We are your ideal visitors who visit a few times a year and patronize your restaurants, stores and wineries, specifically avoiding the festivals. But, frankly, I have to credit the Cherry Festival of 2001 for attracting me there for the first time.
Thomas Shaver
Tue, 01/21/2014 - 4:34pm
This is an observation from someone who loves this whole area dearly and applauds all the great progress Traverse City and the surrounding area have achieved to date. Please beware that great success also bears the seed of it's own undoing. Our history (and I use that term in the broadest sense possible) is replete with example after example of unrestrained "progress" run amok - until that which was loved and cherished in the beginning is no longer recognizable - just a caricature of it's former self. It's OK, and healthy, to say "no thanks" once in a while.
John Q. Public
Tue, 01/21/2014 - 7:23pm
According to the AEG figures, TC has already reached the point of diminishing returns on additional visitors. In 2006, each visitor generated about $468 in economic activity. In 2012 that figure was $373. Had the additional visitors consumed at the same rate as in 2006, $1.23 billion would be reached with around 2.7 million visitors. It's as though 600,000 people are nothing but an irritant.. And some councilmembers want more? Believe it or not, from a macroeconomic perspective, there is a point where enough is enough.
Tue, 01/21/2014 - 9:58pm
Andy Macfarlane was mentioned in the above article questioning whether those who favor limiting festivals aren’t a vocal minority with outsized political influence. I THINK IT IS JUST THE OPPOSITE! The Traverse City Visitors Center and their CEO Brad Van Dommelen whose $175,000 a year job is to maximize tourist visits to the area and the promoters and businesses are on one side and the residents who want to enjoy their town more quietly. With the growth projections just released for Grand Traverse County, tens of thousands of new residents in the next several decades, let us enjoy what we have now without always making a business out of it or having to have it produce income.
John Q. Public
Tue, 01/21/2014 - 11:04pm
I will point out, though, Alan, that my analysis begs the question of the "right" amount of economic activity. It assumes that it is somewhere north of $373. If the costs--both tangible and intangible--of a visit are $100 per visitor, perhaps 8 million visitors at $250 each in activity is the right number. Or even 10 million at $225. At those levels, though, I doubt the aggregate costs would be $100 per visitor. Chamber of Commerce members, though, seldom care about intangible costs. Most of them do business in in one locale, but live somewhere where they aren't quite so directly victimized by the externalities.
Wed, 01/22/2014 - 11:56am
I moved to TC about 2 years ago, and glad to see the economic growth, so long as it is channeled to benefit the residents. Growth is not inherently good or bad; managed growth is the key. That's going to require countywide planning on a larger scale, and more money from tourism channeled into infrastructure. Oh, and I did not move here to re-create my hometown, I came here to get away from it!
Wed, 01/22/2014 - 1:41pm
A finely written piece by Mr. Wheeler. Three points worth mentioning: 1) There are many people who are in the "younger" generation who are fed up with the multiple beer and music festivals that dominate the open space and other public spaces. This is not ONLY an issue that concerns older folks who live in Central neighborhood. If it was, the city commission would have voted otherwise, if they based it on attendance at public meetings. Festival and event organizations packed the meetings with their people. I have personally spoken to dozens of citizens in Traverse City about the issue, and I'd say 65-70% are opposed to organizations using public space at a very cheap rate to fill those spaces. These people want an "open space" to be open more often. 2) The article mentions that Gary Howe mentions is not in favor of eliminating festivals (though that phrase is not in quotes). Does Mr. Howe and the commissioner who agreed with him, realize that there are multiple venues available in TC to host festivals? Why does a festival have to be eliminated if it can't rent public space? Where are the people to defend owners of venues in the area who miss out on revenue because "non-profit" organizations could rent the open space at a dirt cheap rate? If a private group wants to hold a beer festival every weekend, let them find a place and pay for it. That's how business works. 3) As I started at a city meeting: "Just because someone puts the word "festival" at the end of their event title, doesn't make it a festival. we have too many festivals in Northern Michigan. Not because those events should be eliminated, but because they AREN'T festivals. Simply adding festival at the end of your event and bringing in music and selling wine/beer/food for 1-3 days doesn't make your event a festival. We have two festivals in Traverse City that have proven their community value and economic impact. Some of the other "festivals" (though not all to be fair) are simply excuses to play music, sell beer, and consume food and wine. Those activities are fine and any person can choose to attend them, but their organizers often spend big money bringing in talent from outside our region, spend little or next to nothing to promote local vendors, and acquire free labor through "volunteers." That's not a model that I believe the city and people of Traverse City should subsidize by providing free or cheap access to public land. Ticketed events should be treated much differently than festival events where all or the vast majority of events are free. (Yes, I'm looking specifically at Porterhouse Productions, who have made tons of money on the backs of free labor while also often paying very little for an arena or venue because they want/need a free/cheap public space to support their business model.) I applaud the limited measures the board took on this issue. What myself, and many others in Traverse City are hoping for is a sensible balance between using public space to promote the culture and arts of the region, and leaving it open and peaceful for people to enjoy as recreation.
Wed, 01/22/2014 - 1:55pm
I completely agree. You have put my exact thoughts into words, thanks! I am a local, as is my husband. We are both in our mid-30's. We continued to be disappointed at the mindset "TC is just perfect...but a (insert chain name here) would be so nice"! It's always something ridiculous-like Costco or Trader Joe's. You can't be a "locavore" and demand a Trader Joe's. We left Leelanau County because we could not afford the property taxes. LC is totally pandering to tourists and seasonal residents (Sorry-you aren't "locals"!) at this point and TC is not far behind. While we live in Kalkaska County, we avoid TC during festivals. The fudgies are obnoxious, traffic is ridiculous, there's no parking and events are becoming unaffordable. I keep hearing TC is a foodie town, but a family can't afford to go out to eat here...unless you want fast food or a chain. I am definitely in favor of limits. More is not always "more better".
Luke Skywalker
Wed, 01/22/2014 - 3:52pm
Sounds like Telluride...
Thu, 01/23/2014 - 12:19am
You all might gain from studying Myrtle Beach, famous for their trademark "Bike Weeks" for many, many years. After endless analyses of the billions of dollars of economic impact and hugely persuasive "grow it bigger" entrepreneurialism, Myrtle Beach is no longer promoting Bike Weeks. What they've discovered is that the negative costs for Event-specific expansions, police costs, maintenance and repair costs to public infrastructure, private and public business places of every description, traffic deaths and injuries, gridlock for vehicles and pedestrians alike, drug and alcohol issues beyond any quantifying or control .... and a host of et cetera .... not the least of which was a clearly perceived general decay of life-style for citizens and visitors alike .... simply could not be afforded. TC isn't there yet, but the debate you are having is a worthy one. We love Traverse City; our families have cottaged in Northern Michigan for two generations. I am impressed by the depth of your concerns and your articulation of them. Your town is a treasure, and there are solutions which can keep it that way; they involve pace, supervision, and setting some limits. Don't let the CPA's and the MBA's do all the figuring for you.
Chuck Lockwood
Sat, 07/05/2014 - 5:31pm
Thank you for finding the words I couldn't.
Sun, 07/12/2015 - 11:13pm
Thank goodness West Bay doesn't boast a sandbar. Torch Lake is out of control. Regarding TC festival fatigue, 'twould be prudent to fix the aging infrastructure that all of the added congestion helps deteriorate.