Ripple Effect: How Interlochen Center for the Arts impacts the local economy

by Craig Manning

With an alumni list that includes more than its fair share of superstars – not to mention a track record for drawing world-renowned talent to northern Michigan for concerts, performances, residencies, and exhibits – what does Interlochen Center for the Arts’ reach and impact look like as part of the broader northern Michigan community?

How does having hundreds of students and campers flock to northern Michigan each year – or having big crowds converge upon the 4,000-seat Kresge Auditorium for summer concerts – affect the local economy? The Traverse City Business News takes a closer look at the Interlochen ripple effect.

Let’s start with simple numbers: Specifically, the number of students and campers who make Interlochen’s campus their home for weeks or months at a time each year.

According to Simone Silverbush, director of media relations and communications for Interlochen Center for the Arts, Interlochen Arts Academy had 503 boarding students enrolled during the 2020-21 school year, along with 42 day students. (Day students are those students – usually local – who attend Interlochen like a normal school, coming to classes each day but going home at night rather than living in on-campus dorms.) All told, 18 countries and territories were represented among the 2020-21 student body at the academy.

Where Interlochen Arts Academy is a boarding high school with students in grades 9-12, Interlochen Arts Camp welcomes campers from ages 7-19 for three- to six-week programs each summer. In an average year, the camp draws some 2,800 students from around the world.

The camp went virtual in 2020, and while it’s back in person this summer, the camp population is smaller than usual – 2,099 students versus the normal 2,800 – due to COVID precautions. The pandemic has also impacted the reach of the camp: Silverbush says this year’s campers hail from 21 different countries total, which Silverbush says is lower than prior years due to international travel restrictions. There were 42 countries represented at camp in 2019.

With many Interlochen students and campers coming to northern Michigan from other parts of the world – or even just from other states – one of the most significant impacts the institution has on the local economy happens through air travel. According to Cherry Capital Airport Director Kevin Klein, Interlochen-associated fliers are one of the biggest traveler populations. In fact, Interlochen has an entire student travel office dedicated to working “with students, parents, airlines, and the institution in coordinating student travel to and from Interlochen’s campus.”

Joe McCarthy, Interlochen’s director of campus safety and transportation, estimates that in a normal year, the academy and the arts camp collectively account for between 2,000 and 3,000 student flights. Those numbers have been a bit lower since COVID-19, for a number of reasons.

On the academy side, McCarthy says that Interlochen would typically “anticipate student flights to be in excess of 1,200 during the school year.”

This past year, with Interlochen planning fewer breaks to minimize COVID risk (students were kept on campus at Thanksgiving, for instance), flights for holidays and breaks were fewer and further between. Also down were flights for college auditions. According to McCarthy, the academy has around 250 seniors in a normal year, many of whom fly all over the country for college auditions in January and February. Auditions largely went virtual this year, which meant less travel for students.

The arts camp, meanwhile, will likely see about 800 flights total this season, between beginning-of-season arrivals, end-of-season departures, and mid-season changeovers (the mid-July period when one three-week camp session ends and another begins). In an average summer, with more campers total – and more people traveling from international areas – the number of people arriving and departing by plane is usually slightly higher.

Students and campers aren’t all that has to get to and from Interlochen’s campus. Luggage, furniture, musical instruments, and artwork regularly travel in and out as well. Taking responsibility for those assets is The Packaging Store, located on Barlow Street in Traverse City.

According to Robert Petersen, who operates the business, The Packaging Store’s earliest dealings with Interlochen date back to “the late ‘80s or early ‘90s,” when the franchise first landed a contract to handle shipping needs for the academy and the arts camp.

That contract lasted until 2012, when Petersen says Interlochen “took everything in-house and stopped using any outside company for shipping.” When Interlochen sold its bookstore to a new corporate owner in 2019, The Packaging Store got the contract back.

The Interlochen contract doesn’t send consistent business Petersen’s way, but it does make for a few extremely busy times each year.

“It’s a lot of volume in a short period of time,” he explained. “For us, it turns into a busy couple of weeks at the end of May or the beginning of June (when academy students are moving out). And then for summer camp, when that closes up and all the campers head home, same thing.”

Over the years, the Interlochen relationship has meant that Petersen and his team grew accustomed to packaging and shipping large or unusually shaped items – cellos, tubas, and large “multi-dimensional sculptures,” to name a few.

That relationship has also meant a considerable amount of revenue. Petersen estimates that, in the early days, before Interlochen took everything in-house, the contract accounted for 15-20% of his store’s annual gross receipts.

Thanks to the pandemic, things at Interlochen haven’t been totally normal more or less since The Packaging Store won that contract back – and the store “has grown a heck of a lot” since 2012 as well – so Petersen isn’t sure how much of his revenue will end up coming from Interlochen now. Even with a bigger store and a more diversified revenue stream, though, he estimates that the academy and the arts camp will still be 10-12% of the business’s revenue.

Interlochen also has a significant impact on local hospitality and tourism in the region – though that impact has dimmed a bit in the 18 months since COVID-19 struck. After last year’s virtual pivot for both the academy and the arts camp, Interlochen adopted a closed campus policy for this year. Since then, no performances have been open to the public, and parents and families have been significantly restricted in their ability to visit the campus or explore it during drop-off and pick-up times.

Restaurants and hotels alike have felt the blow of these changes.

“We’re doing about a third of what we would normally do in a summer season,” said Brian McAllister, who owns Hofbrau Steak House & American Grille less than two miles north of Interlochen Center for the Arts.

In an average year, Hofbrau draws big crowds of concertgoers, Interlochen Arts Camp staffers, and families. All of that business disappeared last summer; most of it has yet to come back.

“With it being a closed campus, and at partial capacity, you don’t get as many counselors or staff coming in after 9 p.m.,” McAllister said. “You don’t get parents or grandparents coming to see the performances of their kids. You don’t get the concert traffic. So it’s kind of like taking the Cherry Festival away from downtown Traverse City and saying, ‘Good luck.’ It’s just a lot of people that you can’t replace.”

Tammy Bialik – who co-owns the nearby Interlochen Motel – echoes McAllister’s statements.

As the closest option for hotel or motel lodging near Interlochen’s campus, the 14-room Interlochen motel regularly hits no vacancy mode around key academy or arts camp calendar dates.

For Bialik, it became evident early on in the pandemic just how significantly a disruption to the Interlochen calendar could affect her business. From graduation to the Interlochen Arts Festival summer concerts, the motel went “from completely booked to nothing” for multiple dates across the spring and summer of 2020.

The bright spot? With Interlochen restarting its concert series in August, once the camp season concludes, Bialik is already seeing a ramp-up in business at the Interlochen Motel.

She says she hopes it’s a sign of brighter things to come.

“We’re already full for all of those concerts,” she said. “August 3 for Chicago, August 10 for Harry Connick, Jr. Those are Tuesdays and we’re full.”

She credits Interlochen’s unique community as an attraction for larger groups of visitors when Interlochen “opens back up fully.”

“There’s nothing like Interlochen for our area,” she said. “We still have the weddings, we still have our fishermen that we love, we have groups of motorcycles coming through to do their drives on 22. But we love our Interlochen parents. We kind of follow their journey over time, because they drop off their kids every year, and we get to know them.”