Put Away Talk of ‘Runaway’ Growth

OblingerPreparations are underway for the Traverse City Area Chamber’s annual Economic Outlook Breakfast and Business Expo coming up November 3 at the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa. There will be a lot of positive things to talk about this year. Our region is experiencing a downward trend in unemployment rates, rising levels of new construction and development, an influx of young talent to the region and is basking in the glow of what seems like an endless series of shout-outs from national magazines, websites and bloggers.

For business organizations such as the Chamber, it’s always more enjoyable to organize these events in good economic times – much more so than in the recession era of 2008-10. As businesses closed, property values stagnated (or collapsed), new construction ground to a halt and jobless rates surged, the message at this and other such events across Michigan and the Midwest was vastly different: “Hold on … hang in there … conditions will get better.” Even some of that was more wishing and hoping over any obvious signs of an economic turnaround.

Things did turn around. The Grand Traverse region played a significant role in a West Michigan economy that help pull the state through the recession and make Michigan a true comeback state. Housing and other property values have rebounded to pre-recession levels, the region’s jobless rate is nearly half of what it was four years ago, construction activity is returning and consumer confidence is gradually building again.

But like most things in life, the cycles of the regional economy aren’t as high or low as they seem in the moment. The Grand Traverse region was able to hold its economic head above water at the depth of the recession better than many communities in the Midwest because of its economic diversification in recent decades. Similarly, the region’s economy today – while solid and growing – still leaves plenty of room for improvement.

That’s why it’s important, as we assess the current regional economy and look to the future, to keep things in proper perspective. In recent weeks and months we’re seen various reports of a development “boom” in the Traverse City area, with images of new buildings and projects sprouting up across the landscape. Home sales are hot, building permits are filling up the business pages and visitors are frequenting our shops, restaurants, beaches and hotels.

Unfortunately, the economic upturn has also triggered alarms of “rampant” and “runaway” growth that seem to crop up most every time the region’s economy perks up. Warnings of overburdened roads and utilities, overwhelmed public services and damage to our “small town character” are worries for some who seem uncomfortable with just about any level of community growth. Economic incentives such as tax increment financing and brownfield redevelopment districts utilized for decades to shape the region we enjoy today are being twisted into some sort of voodoo economics or corporate welfare.

Again, some perspective is needed. Several of the projects in the so-called “boom” going on currently have been in the pipeline for years, before being forestalled by the recession. While the local economy is strengthening, Traverse City’s downtown remains home to numerous vacant and contaminated properties as ugly as they are underutilized. Our housing shortage is real, our talent pool is thin and we continue to lack the opportunities needed to draw a new generation that can sustain northern Michigan for the long-term. There is much, much to do.

The community should always keep in mind the economic struggles our region faced just a few short years ago. The reality is those gray days are just another stock market/housing/tech bubble or foreign economy collapse away. Our challenge today isn’t dealing with “too much” growth – it is to continue building a solid, diverse local economy in a fragile, unpredictable world.

Laura Oblinger is the Executive Director of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. Contact her by email at laura@tcchamber.org.