Ballot Box Politics Equate to Poor Economic Policy


Catch phrases take hold because they supposedly advance common sense ideas in a concise way that’s easy to remember. But more and more they’re used to mask actual intent and likely outcomes, making it imperative that people look beyond seemingly straightforward words and phrases to understand the motives behind them.

“Let the Voters Decide” is a popular catch phrase these days – one that’s been injected into the ongoing debate over the future development of downtown Traverse City. Transferring angst regarding a specific project into a general and essentially no-growth policy has the potential to clamp a tight lid on the growth potential of the region’s commercial core.

The reality is that voters already decide these issues. They decide by electing commissioners to oversee city plans and ordinances and to hire and appoint staff and advisory board members to carry them out. Attempting to govern via petition could actually undermine the tested and true public process. That’s why the Traverse City Area Chamber has historically been dubious of local and state ballot referendums. They muddle public policy, create uncertainty for the public and the business community and undercut the responsibility of duly-elected representatives to do their jobs.

Nonetheless, we’ve seen it in Traverse City before. The idea of “power to the people” was floated back in 2010 when some local officials and residents attempted to usurp authority of Traverse City Light & Power from the utility board, despite a well-thought-out and reasoned decision made decades ago to create an independent utility board under the city commission. Fortunately, city voters saw through it and soundly defeated the proposal.

Six years later, to paraphrase former President Ronald Reagan, “They’re they go again.” Having failed through the public zoning process, planning commission review, and city commission approval process to stop a proposed 9-story mixed-use development project on the west end of downtown, opponents have gone to court and launched a petition drive to limit building heights on any future downtown development to no more than five stories without voter approval. That’s in stark contrast to a well-conceived city zoning ordinance and master plan that have been in place for years and have served the community well.

Most people presumably want to live in a community that’s poised for growth and economic prosperity, and understand the significant downside of a city’s stagnation. However, “grassroots” groups that push the magic pill of voter approval – that all a larger-scale project needs is a thumbs-up from city voters and everything will be a-ok – have political appeal. What could be more harmless? Unfortunately, it’s more complex than that.

One should question what’s really behind such an initiative, and what are the consequences if they’re successful? For instance, what prudent businessperson is going to invest significant money and time planning a large-scale development proposal downtown knowing it would not only have to go through the standard zoning review rules, but also be subjected to a months-long petition process, a potentially personal campaign played out in local and even statewide media, possible litigation, and endless accusations of greed and destroying the city’s “small town character?”

Successful businesspeople abhor uncertainty. Creating a publicity circus over every large-scale development could have an enormous chilling effect on future downtown growth. It creates the perfect climate for doing nothing. The city risks the perception of having put up “Closed for Business” billboards at the edge of town by creating such a stacked deck against would-be development interests.

Downtown Traverse City has made tremendous strides over the past two decades – but it has so much more potential. It needs more and better housing options, to improve swaths of available infill to limit sprawl outside the city, to further diversify its commerce base, and to continue building and upgrading its infrastructure.

So to “Let the Voters Decide” issue by issue in effect says: “I don’t believe in the government we already elected.” It demeans dedicated participants in the public processes that elect representatives, determine master plans, approve zoning ordinances, serve on commissions, run for office and otherwise move our community forward. That does not seem like something our community should embrace.

Doug Luciani is CEO of TraverseCONNECT, a regional economic development organization that includes the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. Contact him by email at