From Cherry to Freshwater Capital: It’s time to expand TC’s identity

As we begin the new year, it’s time to expand our community’s identity.

For years, Traverse City has been known as the Cherry Capital due to our beautiful orchards and national festival. While this identity remains important to our heritage, Traverse City is now uniquely positioned to become the Freshwater Capital of the world.

The first element to gaining this title is geography. As Great Lakes residents, we sit on 84% of the fresh surface water in North America; a fifth of the world’s fresh surface water. If wealth is measured in fresh water, we are naturally set up to be on top. Water scarcity in other parts of the world is driving massive population displacement and migration, conflict and war. We are fortunate to have an abundance of fresh water and we should use our geography to become known as leaders in fresh water.

A second reason to adopt the Freshwater Capital moniker is to lead water policy. With water wealth comes great responsibility to protect it. Traverse City is home to great non-for-profits in water policy like the Leelanau Conservancy (nearly 30 years of work in water quality), Inland Seas (water sampling, education) and Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay (ecological restoration and water planning).

Driven by principles from ancient Rome, TC-based For Love of Water (FLOW) has international reach and advocates using the public trust doctrine to protect the Great Lakes. Basically the public trust doctrine is a fancy way of saying that we the public own the Great Lakes and our government, on behalf of us, has a duty to protect our water by not allowing any one person to make a use of it that interferes with the public’s right to use and enjoy it for now and future generations. Traverse City’s vision should include becoming globally known as a hub for thought leadership in water policy.

The next ingredients positioning TC as the Freshwater Capital are industry and the ability to train people in water-related vocations. In this we are grounded by Northwestern Michigan College’s Great Lakes Water Studies Institute, including drone submarine certification, the fresh water studies program teaching water management and the Maritime Academy. We are also a Coast Guard City. We are home to companies including RM Young & Co. (innovating in meteorological instruments) and Quantum Sail Design Group. Area boat makers have manufactured canoes, tall ships and power boats. Local water industry includes marine insurance specialists, dock system manufacturers, fishing and other boating-related industries.  Professional sailors and licensed captains that call Traverse City home are navigating vessels in many parts of the world. The current commodore of Lake Michigan Sail Racing Federation lives here too. Through our growing angel investor ecosystem, start-up water tech companies are starting to be attracted to our town and we are beginning to host water conferences attracting business travel to our hotels during the off-season. Through the years, our tourism has been based on fresh water at least as much as upon cherries.

Currently, much of the world’s water technology leadership comes from Israel. Surrounded by other nations historically threatening to block transport access to import food and cut off fresh water supplies, arid Israel needed to figure out a way to become self-sustaining to feed its people. Out of water scarcity came great innovation including drip irrigation, advanced municipal water system monitoring technology where a drop of water falling from a leaky pipe can trigger alarms, desalination technologies and leadership in water management including recycling to transform gray water into drinking water.

We are on the opposite end of the water spectrum and should use our water abundance to innovate. While our watershed may seem endless – particularly in times of record high water levels and flooded coast lines – we should put technology and policy in place now to ensure that it is used wisely. Due to water scarcity elsewhere, many believe it is only a matter of time before the world comes to take Great Lakes water away or we see massive migration to regions of fresh water. We should plan ahead to come up with new technologies and policies to assist those without fresh water, as well as protect Great Lakes fresh water supplies from becoming exhausted.

Today we sit in the cat bird’s seat, operating out of a position of great water wealth. We should harness that power to build our economy, turn stewardship into leadership, and continue to grow and attract top talent to build our water-centric economy.

The water was here before the first cherry tree was planted in 1852 by Peter Dougherty on Old Mission Peninsula. The region’s economy has historically relied upon fresh water for fishing, shipping lumber and trade routes created by Ottawa and Chippewa First Nation Peoples. As we reflect on our heritage, haven’t we really been the Freshwater Capital for years?

TC – it is time to own it.

Katie Horvath is the CEO of Naveego in Traverse City. Reach her at