Education: A Regional Cornerstone

By Doug Luciani

Strong institutional infrastructure is a common thread among communities that grow – places that sustain through lean economic times and become even more bustling and vibrant when the economy perks along.

It’s a bedrock that goes beyond roads, rails, airports and utility lines – important building blocks for any region, to be sure. Institutional infrastructure extends further into a community’s fabric, in places such as schools, churches, parks and recreation areas, arts and cultural attractions, even commerce districts. Areas with solid institutional infrastructure can educate their workforce, care for their young and elderly populations, provide jobs and opportunity, and entice people and businesses there from elsewhere.

The water and woods of the Grand Traverse region drew folks here for decades, and helped create an amazing level of institutional infrastructure considering its moderate population and relative isolation. Today we reap the dividends – excellent public and private schools, a thriving community college, top-rate health care facilities, vibrant churches, world-class recreational amenities, arts and cultural centers – the list goes on. Many of these cornerstones are thriving – world-famous Interlochen Center for the Arts is almost 90 years old and as strong as ever. Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools was recently included among six Michigan schools named a Catholic Education Honor Roll 2014 School of Excellence.

But solid infrastructure needs continual maintenance (that’s why they’re painting the Mackinac Bridge nearly every time you cross it). It’s a responsibility passed down over generations. This area was flush with individuals and families who built up its institutional infrastructure. Our generation is challenged to maintain it and make it stronger, to preserve those special features that make the Grand Traverse region a special place.

Are we holding up our end of the bargain? Even with the impressive accomplishments, the jury seems to be out. The community twice turned down the completion of a long-range capital improvement plan for Traverse City Area Public Schools, a startling shift from what had been decades of public support for maintaining and upgrading the public school system.

At this month’s general election TCAPS faces even higher stakes – renewal of a non-homestead operating millage that generates more than a third of the district’s operating revenue. This is a property tax levy on businesses, second-home owners, rentals and other non-residential properties, and there’s no increase in the millage request.

The Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce strongly endorses a “yes” vote on the millage renewal. Anything less sends a loud and chilling message across Michigan and beyond that says perhaps our generation isn’t up the task of maintaining and growing what’s been entrusted. More practically and immediately, a millage defeat would create operational chaos in our local schools – and a black eye for our community that won’t heal anytime soon.

There are too many places in Michigan with striking images of what happens when a community allows its institutional infrastructure to collapse – and the devastating economic and social spiral that quickly follows. It’s time to re-set our priorities and make a commitment to the generations who worked so hard to make Northwest Michigan what it is today – and pledge to take what we’ve been given and make it better.

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