Community sustainability gains momentum: Project includes exploring the feasibility of a local currency & a CD-ROM of who owns what businesses

TRAVERSE CITY – Community sustainability is not a new idea. In fact, it’s an ancient one.

All the great tribes of the world had communities which not only provided for the basic needs of food, shelter, and health care, but also outreach and enrichment in areas of art, education, and spiritual growth. These tribes took care of each other from birth to death, and found value in every stage of life. The Industrial Age changed our ideals and our communities, and shifted our priorities. Now that we’re in the Information Age, will we work together to shift back? Where do we start?

Locally, discussions about community sustainability began as a series of fireside pot-luck conversations with staff, board members, and friends of the Neahtawanta Research and Education Center (NREC) in Traverse City. Led by co-directors Bob Russell and Sally Van Vleck, the NREC is supported by memberships, donations and workshop fees.

As a result of those initial discussions, interest rippled out to include lawyers, teachers, physicians, media and government representatives, writers and retail business owners. Community activists, including Bryan Crough, director of the Downtown Development Authority, and Marsha Smith of Rotary Charities, are working with the NREC on projects relevant to community sustainability. The Kellogg Foundation has provided grant money for various projects, as well.

Projects include a soon-to-air community radio program on WNMC covering such topics as what community sustainability means, as well as issues of health care, economics, and food provisions in such a community, said Russell and Vleck.

The discussions have also been videotaped for air on tctv-2, but a broadcast date hasn’t been set. These venues were chosen because both the college radio station and the public-access TV station represent “green space” in the media. Green space can be described as an area, in this case the media, where free speech isn’t connected to an advertiser or a single political agenda.

“We have fewer and fewer green spaces, whether we’re talking about land or media, that’s not privately or corporately owned,” Russell said. “By pre-sending our project on these locally-owned, locally-managed media venues, we’re also presenting opportunities for open, thoughtful discussion to everyone.”

The NREC’s web site,, will be expanded. The site has resources for finding information about sustainability in the Grand Traverse Bay Region, articles from NREC’s publication “Synapse,” and links to local web sites related to planning, future growth and development issues. An interesting link available through NREC (or by itself at is the Quality of Life Index for the Grand Traverse Region. This report identifies, measures, and annually reports on 10 different areas that affect the quality of life in the region. The Index is a community-based effort coordinated by the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation and initiated by Rotary Charities.

Another project is the production of a CD-ROM on sustainable communities, due out sometime in June. The CD will contain the radio program, information from the Quality of Life Index project, statistics from the Local Ownership of Commerce Project, and articles in “Synapse.” It will also be interactive with the Internet.

The CD is being produced with the help of Byte Productions, owned by Tom and Tim Barrons, and will be made available free of charge to schools and libraries in the area. Organizations and individuals will be able to purchase copies of the CD.

The Local Ownership of Commerce Project will research the ownership of two major retail areas in Grand Traverse County.

These areas include the downtown retail area, as defined by the Downtown Traverse City Association, and the mall area, including the Grand Traverse Mall, the Grand Traverse Crossing, and retail developments in close proximity.

The data will include who owns the buildings and who owns the businesses–important issues in a self-reliant local economy.

Increasingly, retail businesses that are not locally owned funnel money out of the community to a corporate site for redistribution. While these businesses support the community through jobs and sponsorship programs, there is no real stake for them to stay in any community in the event of a recession.

The commerce project will also explore the feasibility and desirability of creating a local currency to supplement the national currency.

This isn’t a new idea; Traverse City had script money during the Depression, and Ithaca, NY, has Ithaca Dollars which can be used as cash or to barter time, goods and services.

It seems an overwhelming task, rethinking and retooling our way of life. Russell suggests looking at it this way:

“It helps if we look at development different from growth,” he said. “Development has always been attached to growth, but improving doesn’t have to mean getting bigger. We do have a finite planet, with finite resources–that’s a physical law. There can’t be infinite economic growth. If we can restrain growth, recognize positive trends, and support the cultural development of our communities, we can also create more of a balance between the rights of individuals and the rights of the community.”

“Change takes time, effort, and awareness,” he continued. “We may get frightened by the rapid pace of our lives, but the world still works on very human, biological and cultural levels. If we can understand that, and see this as a long-term project, we’ll be providing a real community for generations to come.”

The NREC, located in the Neahtawanta Inn overlooking Bowers Harbor, is a non-profit organization that helps individuals and institutions work toward peaceful, environmentally-sound solutions through education, communication and service.

Their work focuses on sustainability in the Traverse City area, but also includes issues of national and global concern. BIZNEWS