Kingsley’s Gambit: How a small town is rewriting its narrative

Kingsley, once thought of as a bedroom community to Traverse City, is waking up to residential and commercial growth, with a net gain in new business openings and other signs of renewal.

Property developer Terry Beia says Kingsley has much more going for it than just its proximity to Traverse City.

In addition to its thriving school system, Kingsley has an engaged local government and rent rates that make it attractive, he said.

But that’s not all, says Beia.

Jess L Ashmore Photography

“(Kingsley villagers) seem committed to shaking off the long-held stereotypes that weighed on their community; they are proud of their town and they care for each other,” he said. “It takes committed people pulling together with a shared vision for any town to thrive.”

In many ways, the 1,500-person village has traditionally been like a suburb of Traverse City – a more affordable spot to live and raise a family, but still less than half an hour’s commute from downtown TC.

Now, Beia says he sees Kingsley as something else: a growing, thriving, trending neighborhood full of potential.

As the managing member of Southtown Property Management LLC, which currently controls 12 commercial and residential properties in Kingsley, Beia says all of Southtown’s properties are fully occupied at the moment, with the exception of one small studio apartment. He says he sees this as a sign of the village’s notable growth.

In spite of the pandemic, Beia notes that he has seen commercial growth in Kingsley this year, with a “net gain in new business openings.”

Broader real estate statistics in Kingsley bear out what Beia reports. According to data from the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) for the Kingsley 49549 ZIP code, the average estimated home value change in Kingsley over the last 12 months has been +8.8%, ahead of the overall Grand Traverse County average of +6% and better than the statewide average of +3.3%.

Despite the growth, real estate in Kingsley remains somewhat affordable at $212,000 median value when compared to Grand Traverse County’s median value of $277,000.

That affordability is helping to make Kingsley a draw to individuals and families that might find Traverse City cost-prohibitive. NAR statistics show that 87% of the homes in Kingsley are owned and just 13% are rented, compared to a 76%/24% breakdown for Grand Traverse County.

Max Anderson

“Affordable housing is important across the board,” said Max Anderson, the chair of the Kingsley Downtown Development Authority (DDA). “We are not the main show (in northern Michigan); Traverse City is. So property values, of course, are higher north of us than they are here. That allows us to do a couple things to attract people at more of a bargain.”

One priority for the DDA recently has been getting Kingsley re-certified as a low mod area (LMA), where “low mod” means low or moderate income (LMI). In order to qualify for LMA status, at least 51% of the residents in a community must be “LMI persons,” based on their income levels.

Anderson says that Kingsley used to be an LMA, but was “kicked out” of that status bracket based on the findings of the 2010 Census. Getting re-certified has been a priority for the DDA, he adds, because that status “unlocks the door to literally millions of dollars in funding” – particularly grants through the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program (CDBG).

After a re-certification collaboration with Lake Superior State University, Kingsley is an LMA once more. Now, the community is working with Dan Leonard from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) to unlock Kingsley’s potential for CDBG grants and other potential funding opportunities.

If all goes well, Anderson says the first round of grant funding will go toward “much-needed infrastructure improvements in the DDA district and around downtown,” including street repairs, repaving, upgrades to water mains, and more.

Those infrastructure upgrades are just one of many projects that the DDA is pursuing at the moment. Also on the agenda are building a new DDA website, working with a newly hired marketing consultant to increase Kingsley’s visibility, and installing brand-new way finding signs around the community to help visitors find local destinations such as schools, Civic Center South and the Kingsley Branch Library.

Perhaps the biggest project on the docket for the DDA – or “the elephant in the room,” as Anderson calls it – is Kingsley’s industrial park on east M-113, which he says “currently sits mostly vacant.”

The Kingsley DDA wants to revitalize and fill that space, not just to continue building Kingsley up as a thriving place to live and work, but also to increase local tax revenues.

While Anderson acknowledges that business parks and industrial parks are typically made up of only certain types of entities, he says the DDA is open to doing just about anything with the property.

“It’s not just industry there,” Anderson said. “It’s a large enough parcel where there could potentially be some different things going on. We might even think about some type of housing, because there is certainly more demand down here, as there is in Traverse City, for affordable housing.”

Anderson adds that the Kingsley DDA currently has an informal partnership of sorts with Traverse Connect, Traverse City’s economic development agency, which is “keeping their ear to the ground” in case someone is looking to set up shop in northern Michigan and Kingsley seems to be a good fit.

Terry Beia

According to Beia, many existing Traverse City businesses are indeed sensing a good fit in Kingsley. He and his partners have received multiple inquiries for their commercial properties from Traverse City businesses considering Kingsley expansions.

That kind of newfound interest, Beia notes, is helping the Kingsley DDA be more strategic as it builds up a downtown area where people want to spend their time.

“DDA officials are working with private investors to help balance the retail mix downtown and to offer more after-hours dining and entertainment options,” Beia said.

Ultimately, that sense of place and community is central to the mission that Anderson has as he continues his role as DDA chair. He says that Kingsley already has at least one unique ace up its sleeve in that regard: The Rock of Kingsley Youth Center, a community center that serves much more than youth, with programming such as educational workshops, recreational activities, community service outreach, musical performances, dances and more.

“It’s just a fantastic place,” Anderson said of The Rock. “It’s a place for kids to come after school, but the seniors use it, too. The Kinglsey Lions club uses it. Local social organizations use it.”

Anderson alluded to some changes on The Rock’s horizon.

“We have some big things in the works, too – things I can’t talk about yet, but it’s really big news,” he said. “The Rock is going to be making some changes and improvements in a big way.”

Ultimately, Anderson says it’s the collaboration and buy-in from organizations like The Rock that is making the DDA’s push toward growth and economic development in Kingsley a viable mission.

“Part of our success has been the integration of all different facets of the community in a way that everybody is on board with and that makes sense,” Anderson said. “We’re all really starting to harmonize and work together to push Kingsley forward, increasing our stance in in the region.”

For Beia, Kingsley’s future is clear.

“I think Kingsley will experience very positive exponential growth over the next five to 10 years,” he predicted. “It is definitely headed in the right direction.”