Barn-storming: Use group nails down a plan at the Commons

TRAVERSE CITY – Work continues to move forward on a collaborative effort to bring commercial activity as well as a shared vision of sustainability to the barns and surrounding property at the Grand Traverse Commons.

It's all the work of The Barns Use Group, which is comprised of the property's owner – the combined City of Traverse City and Garfield Township Recreational Authority – and four local organizations: The Botanical Garden Society of Northwest Michigan, Little Artshram, SEEDS and Spireworks.

After a public "Brainstorming the Barns" process in 2007 to identify potential future uses for the 54-acre parcel, the Recreational Authority sought proposals from groups interested in managing the property over the long-term. These four organizations came forward with visions and plans and, as it turned out, a common focus on environmental, economic and social sustainability honoring the history, culture and former farming activity on the property.

"The focus of the site is to create sustainable agriculture and cultivation and transferring that knowledge to the community," said Mac McClelland, a project manager for Traverse City consulting engineering firm Otwell Mawby, P.C., which contracted with the Recreational Authority, along with The Neahtawanta Center, to assist in the visioning process for the property.

McClelland said there is a trend toward this "entrepreneurial government," in which a governmental entity provides the means (in this case property) and then partners with the private and nonprofit sector for its use. Other examples locally are Traverse Bay Area Youth Soccer (TBAYS) and Involved Citizens Enterprise (I.C.E.),

"It's a unique model to work through," McClelland said.

The property was purchased through a millage in 2004 and as such all property has to remain in public ownership and all the groups are required to be financially self-sufficient.

"It's a way to enhance the use of the property and stays consistent with the mission, and limits expenses of a public entity," McClelland said.

Moving forward, the formal arrangements between the Recreational Authority and each of the four groups – including governance structure, leases and a master site plan – are to be completed in the coming months. Under that timeline, activity at the site should begin to take off by next spring/summer and kick into high gear by 2010.

There is also a plan to stimulate business activity at the site. The proposal calls for using the main cathedral barn as a public gathering facility for conferences, weddings, a possible Film Festival venue and other compatible uses, McClelland explained.

Though a new roof, with insulation, was completed as part of the Barns Stabilization Project, the building doesn't meet code and there are no utility services, but that is all part of the improvement plan.

There are some Recreational Authority funds upfront to use for capital improvements to the barns that would be paid off from with revenue from events and grant funds would also be sought, McClelland said.

The Groups and their Plans:

The Botanical Garden Society of Northwest Michigan plans to develop a botanical garden that focuses on sustainability and healing (reflective of the site's former hospital) with an emphasis on education and demonstration, explained board chair Karen Schmidt. Funding will in large part come from a membership drive (600 members currently), grants and a capital campaign, the silent phase of which is slated to get underway in the spring, according to Schmidt.

SEEDS, an ecological education and design nonprofit, plans to develop a small-scale sustainable agriculture operation to provide training for young farmers and the community, help design the property's infrastructure and track the financial, social and environmental outcomes (i.e. greenhouse gas emissions and waste streams), explained Executive Director Sarna Salzman.

Little Artshram, which provides opportunities to learn organic farming and environmental preservation principles and for nature-inspired artistic expression, plans to continue its community garden and community arts programs, develop a youth-run market garden and develop an artist-in-residence program.

Spireworks, an event management and marketing company, will focus on the financial feasibility of the entire property, develop the cathedral barn for community uses and handle its management. BN