Developers seek input on downtown

TRAVERSE CITY – At the first two of three scheduled public forums titled, "Building our Downtown," the forum's sponsoring developers heard loud and clear that the shared community vision they are seeking is still a ways off.

Most everyone, from city residents and city officials to developers to the Downtown Development Authority said they can agree that having a "livable" downtown is a desirable goal. What a "livable" business district looks like, and who can be trusted to decide what it means, isn't so easily defined, however.

"Citizens just want a nice town to live in with out all the hassles," said resident Jim Carruthers, in an interview prior to the forum. He was echoing the opinions of many. "I will continue to argue for keeping a small town character. I am not anti-development and feel we can develop the downtown area at a scope and scale that is similar to what is there. Many leave the hustle and bustle of the big city (for) a small town, and I feel we should keep it that way."

The forums were organized this fall by four real estate developers: Gene LaFave (Hartford-LaFave Inc.) Ray Minervini (The Village at Grand Traverse Commons) and Gerald Snowden (Snowden Development). The forums follow a failed August referendum that would have authorized a city bond for up to $16 million to fund a public parking deck on West Front Street. The funds would have been used to finance the development of a parking deck at 145 W. Front Street by Federated Properties and also to fund infrastructure improvements throughout the West Front Street area. More than 71 percent of city residents voted against the proposal.

"The voters spoke and spoke decisively," said LaFave. "You could put Mom and Apple Pie on the ballot and not get a 71."

LaFave theorized that a number of factors were responsible for the wide-margin defeat of the proposal, including miscommunication, shifting sites, unconventional financing, and out-of- town influences. But he insisted that another more basic reason was at the core of voter dissatisfaction.

"We can talk all day long about communication, but the real issue here is trust," he said. "There were times during the election when people lost that trust. They lost it for Federated, they lost it for the DDA, and they lost it for Jason Allen, whose name was unfairly sullied by this. The good thing is that trust can be rebuilt."

Though the voters halted the proposed collaboration between the City of Traverse City and Federated Properties, the issue continues to have far-reaching effects here in the city and even, to some extent, in the state leadership. In November, Sen. Jason Allen lost his bid for Senate Majority Leader after being considered a heavy favorite for the post. Some, including Bill Ballenger of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, wonder how much Allen's support of the failed Traverse City parking deck contributed to the Senate electing a senator from Rochester instead.

What kind of downtown and surrounding area do the people of Traverse City want? Through compromise and communication, can it be a place that satisfies everyone? That is what developers, residents, and city officials are hoping to find out.

The third public forum will focus on understanding the City Master Plan's use of the term "Small Town Character" and how interpretation of it may affect the area's future growth and economic vitality. It will be held Wednesday, Dec. 5, 7-9 p.m. at the NMC Hagerty Center.

For more information, contact Gene LaFave 586-530-8163 or Ray Minervini at 941-1900. BN