Downtown TC developer Jerry Snowden talks the three Ds

TRAVERSE CITY – Jerry Snowden has had his finger on the pulse of development in downtown Traverse City for the last decade. The BN caught up with the developer of TC's Radio Centre and the Brownstones on Boardman to find out what's up with his latest project, what he thinks of new mayor Chris Bzdok, and that pesky public parking deck issue.

BN: First off, where do things stand with your proposed RiverWest project at 305 West Front Street, across from Traverse City State Bank?

Snowden: We are in a holding pattern. There is still a long way to go. We have a letter of intent from a theater group and I've had discussions with a couple of restaurants, but we are waiting to hear the plan for public parking. Last winter I asked the city commission if it had any interest in putting public parking at the site; the city leases almost 90 public spaces from me there right now. Once I start construction they will lose those spaces. Plans have been drawn up and recently cost estimates have been generated for a west end public parking deck. I hope to get some feedback soon.

[Editor's note: The proposal includes a 140,000 square-foot, mixed-use building to include a multi-screen cinema and restaurants. The project could create $33 million in new capital investment and 175 new jobs. Snowden says plans may be modified depending on what happens with the public parking at the west end of downtown.]

BN: A couple of years ago you described downtown as in the early stages of its redevelopment cycle and spoke of a lack of leadership where development is concerned. What's the current climate like?

Snowden: It's improved. Although some politicians can still be timid about development, I think they are seeing the benefits of a more vibrant downtown as more investment is allowed to occur. The State Theatre had a lot to do with this as did Hagerty's commitment to bring jobs downtown. The last city commission helped the city move forward by supporting these projects.

BN: There are different city leaders in place now. How do you view them?

Snowden: I am very optimistic. New city manager [Ben Bifoss] does a great job of focusing primarily on the business of running city government without the politics. The new commission will likely operate from a similar perspective. It's a positive sign that Mayor Chris Bzdok wants to invest in infrastructure. That will attract more investment and improve the tax base. His attempt to improve the Division Street corridor showed a lot of foresight. I think he sees a city where all interests are balanced…and he has laid out a plan. As for the DDA, I think it is getting better, too. Whenever you get new personalities on a board with new ideas, it's usually a good thing.

BN: You also develop projects in metro Detroit. What's better here? What's worse?

Snowden: Traverse City is better because I get to live here instead of there, but there are some real differences. Investment-wise, Traverse City is riskier. It's a smaller market, yet ironically requires more capital. The deals take longer and are subjected to more scrutiny, which … increases costs and scares off reinvestment. In metro Detroit markets, developments still require public input and face stringent review, but projects seem more acceptable. Most developers will probably tell you that in Traverse City you generally have to push your project through the system and babysit it the entire way. This is really time consuming, expensive and delays your next investment.

BN: You and a partner reopened downtown coffee shop CREMA, saving jobs and resurrecting a popular coffee joint. Why did you take that project on?

Snowden: I had a real strong interest in keeping CREMA alive. When it closed we were all taken by surprise. It had become a strong part of the Radio Centre development. My partner Joe Sarafa has done a fantastic job of revitalizing and re-energizing it.

BN: What is your take on the land use and transportation study, the Grand Vision?

Snowden: I thought it was good in concept. I participated in two of the sessions, but haven't kept up with it lately. The best part was that it brought people together and got them thinking and talking about future development. It asked them to make decisions. It's always easy just to sit back and say "no," but the Grand Vision asked them to make choices.

BN: If you had a "Grand Vision" for TC, what three things do you think would be awesome for downtown?

Snowden: A three choice limit is tough. Not necessarily in this order, but more entertainment and restaurants, more residential living and public restrooms. If I had a fourth, it would be better infrastructure including connections to the bay.

BN: Your hanging flower basket program along Front Street has been wildly successful. Why do this?

Snowden: Frankly, we started the program because we grew tired of hearing from a few top city officials that it couldn't be done. It had been tried long ago and didn't work. Finally, I figured if I could get permission, we'd do it ourselves. The first year we paid for the baskets and volunteers watered them. The next year people asked if they could contribute money. Finally, Mayor Estes and City Manager Ben Bifoss figured out a way to have the city water them. We'll keep growing it until we cover the whole central business district.

BN: Some in town likely still associate you with your parking deck project alternative to the Federated public parking deck proposal. Is any of that history still following you? Do you care?

Snowden: I don't know if it does, and no, I don't care. All I tried to do was give the city an alternative opportunity for a parking deck. I had no idea it was going to turn into the huge fiasco that it did, but that was the political scene at the time. I think the environment has changed. BN