Don’t Shrink From Big Thinking

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood….”

American architect Daniel Burnham is known for helping design some of the country’s most notable structures and majestic cities, including Chicago and San Francisco. His time-tested words from more than a century ago are as relevant as ever when assessing the challenges that lie ahead in northwest Michigan.

When former Traverse City Downtown Development Director Bryan Crough passed away suddenly in June 2013, the region lost an enthusiastic community leader with a wealth of institutional knowledge. It also lost a person with a Burnham-like vision of the unlimited potential of downtown Traverse City. Twenty five years ago Crough looked at boarded-up buildings and half-empty parking lots and saw a downtown with eclectic commerce, unique dining and entertainment venues and first-class infrastructure – all of which came to be in his too-short lifetime.

Crough wasn’t the first. Big thinkers such as regional broadcast pioneer Les Biederman and businessman Gerald Oleson – active members of the Chamber in their day – brought to reality institutional treasures including Northwestern Michigan College. Carrying on that tradition, today’s college leaders have continued to build on success with ideas such as the forward-thinking University Center.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, a handful of community leaders envisioned a non-industrialized bayfront – a pie in the sky idea at the time. They took on the slow but steady process of moving industrial sites away from the water. The Chamber also played a significant role there. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the push was to create an open, publicly-owned bayfront. The Chamber helped again, making vision become reality for a bayfront that’s the envy of cities throughout the Midwest.

Few could foresee over a decade ago the dilapidated former State Hospital grounds transformed into The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, one of the truly amazing historic renovation projects in the country. The vision and synergy created by developer Ray Minervini has spilled over into the creation of the adjacent Botanic Garden at Historic Barns Park, another major undertaking years in the making brought to fruition by big thinking – and hard work.

“Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.”

There are other examples – the incredible growth and advancement of Munson Medical Center and the creation of treasured public amenities including the TART and VASA trails and the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. All are incredible community achievements built over decades through public and private partnerships that will benefit the region for decades to come.

The question is who will be our Burnham – or Crough or Minervini – going forward? Many of today’s decision makers increasingly focus on the operational here and now, seemingly less inclined to defer to the professionals hired to run our municipalities. To be sure, issues such as solvent pensions, street design and snow removal are important. But day-to-day matters sap a growing amount of time and energy from our local officials, civic workers and the public. The down side is less time and effort – and resources – to tackle the very real big picture challenges that include workforce housing, readying our young people and growing the region’s economy for the long term.

Who will help break us free from the rote of daily existence to create a vision and path to keep the Grand Traverse region a shining star in Michigan and the Midwest – magic to stir men’s blood? The Chamber and its economic development affiliates have charted an aggressive course to respond to this challenge, and to assert its role as an impact player in moving the region’s fortunes forward. Who will join us?

“Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon be beauty. Think big.”

Doug Luciani is President and CEO of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. Contact him by email at