Room at the Top: Downstate businesses ‘bullish’ on Traverse City

The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. But enough businesses from downstate must see green grass in this area, as more and more of them open offices or outlets in this area. But what do those in the Motor City – or for that matter, Grand Rapids – see in Traverse City? Is business (or doing business) in Traverse City different than in large metro areas, such as Grand Rapids or Detroit?

Sometimes yes, sometimes not really. And it seems the differences have lessened over the years.

Commercial Realtor and real estate developer Jerry Snowden moved to this area in 1999.

“I relocated here from suburban Detroit and wanted to do commercial real estate development with an emphasis on office buildings, which was my primary background,” he said.

He moved here for the lifestyle, but initially Snowden found few business opportunities and spent much of his time doing business in Detroit.

“The town was small and … most of the businesses were locally owned,” he said. “Not many national or even large regional companies were here.”

How things change. Today Traverse City employs well over 8,000 people. Numerous national franchises are represented here, from retail to financial advisories and more, and a technology hub is rapidly growing. While there are still numerous challenges, including nearby affordable workforce housing, new business keeps on coming, Snowden said.

“The thing that’s amazing to me is that just when you think Traverse City has peaked or plateaued regarding attracting new businesses, another wave of new businesses come along,” he said.

We asked Snowden and others representing companies with locations downstate and in Traverse City to answer three questions:

  • How do you see the Grand Traverse market from a business perspective?
  • Have you or will you invest in this market and why?
  • What are the differences between operating your venture in Grand Rapids or metro Detroit versus in or around Traverse City?

 

Jerry Snowden, Commercial Real Estate Developer, Snowden Companies

Snowden & Associates, Inc. was founded as a Farmington Hills-based commercial real estate brokerage firm in 1987 specializing in office buildings. In 1993, Snowden Management was created to manage many of the properties it marketed and, in 1999, Snowden Development was formed to acquire and develop properties for its own account and others. Collectively, the entities are known as Snowden Companies. 

How do you see the Grand Traverse market from a business perspective? 

I believe the Traverse City economy will keep growing. Businesses will always come and go, but I believe the long-term trend will be positive growth. In the end, it’s still all about lifestyle and quality of life. Those two things never go out of style. There will always be a demand from people who want to live in a better place and raise their families in a better place.

Have you or will you invest in this market and why? 

I have been investing and developing in this market since  the early 2000’s and am invested in some large commercial properties. On average our office and retail is about 98% occupied. I am always concerned that the commercial real estate market might get overheated and we could have too much supply, so I am cautious, but high land and building costs seem to moderate over-building, at least for now.

What are the differences between operating your venture in GR or metro Detroit versus in or around Traverse City?

The biggest difference I found was that it definitely takes a while to get established in Traverse City because it’s a small town and people have many existing relationships to honor. In Detroit metro area, the market is so large, you can pretty much set up shop right away and be successful right away.

 

Steve Peacock, Principal, Rehmann

Rehmann offers a variety of accounting, tax, wealth management and other financial services. It also offers technology and IT services. The company’s Traverse City office is one of several around the state. Steve Peacock, office managing principal in the Traverse City office, responded.

How do you see the Grand Traverse market from a business perspective? 

The firm is bullish on the Traverse City area. There are a plethora of opportunities – hotel, oil and gas, municipal – there is plenty of work to keep us busy. We continue to grow. We want to be the biggest and best.

Have you or will you invest in this market and why? 

Rehmann has more than 20 offices in Michigan, Florida and Ohio. In the public accounting space, there are a lot of good companies. We thought this was a ripe environment for the firm.

What are the differences between operating your venture in GR or metro Detroit versus in or around Traverse City? 

The differences are not unique to public accounting. It’s smaller and easier to be known. There are 20,000 (similar companies) in Detroit. In Traverse City, firms get more recognition by being in the community. If you take care of clients, it works out great. Our office’s footprint is from Escanaba and Marquette to Ludington. I grew up in the U.P., so I have a soft spot for it. Clients notice that.

 

Leah Gradl, Vice President of Support Operations, Kent Companies

Kent Concrete was founded in 1957 in Grand Rapids. It specializes in all things concrete from concrete pumping, concrete polishing and concrete staining to foundation restoration, excavation and masonry. The company changed its name to Kent Companies in the 1990s; during that decade, it expanded operations to Detroit, Lansing and Traverse City. Since then it has also established offices in Dallas and Charlotte, North Carolina. Leah Gradl, the company’s vice president of support operations (marketing, safety, human resources, training, and IT), responded to the questions.

How do you see the Grand Traverse market from a business perspective? 

We find the area very attractive. There’s such talent and synergy in the development community. We recognize a big need for affordable housing. There’s a unique opportunity to use local talent and workmanship (as well as) developers and contractors.

Have you or will you invest in this market and why? 

Yes. We recognized the synergy in having an office there, planting a flag in northern Michigan. We have a local team. We look at the opportunity to expand – (which led to) Charlotte, Dallas, etc.

What are the differences between operating your venture in GR or metro Detroit versus in or around Traverse City? 

“We recognize the value that the Traverse City region places on local leadership and community involvement support.  This is reflective of our own corporate goals and values, and ones that we incorporate in other key cities where we operate in around the country.” – Dave Schoonbeck, COO

 

Jenni Peoples, Communications Specialist, Safety Net

The IT services company actually took a reverse route from the others here. It began in Traverse City 16 years ago, then expanded downstate, first in Brighton, then moving that office to Farmington Hills. Jenni Peoples, executive assistant and communications specialist, responded to the questions.

How do you see the Grand Traverse market from a business perspective? 

In Traverse City, we have relationships established. It’s also easier to get to know a new business here.

Why invest in the market downstate?

The owner had connections to downstate; his professional career started there. After establishing and having success, we opened a second office. We expanded to a new territory with a growing economy.

What are the differences between operating your venture in GR or metro Detroit versus in or around Traverse City? 

It is challenging downstate. It’s more competitive. It’s bigger and you lose the local feel. There’s a difference in how relationships are built.

 

Nikki Probst, Vice President for Business Relations, Custer

Custer is a workplace design firm and office furniture supplier. It serves customers in the commercial, education, healthcare, and hospitality industries, offering technology, furniture, flooring, relocation, management and other services. It has offices in Grand Rapids, Benton Harbor, Kalamazoo, Holland, Traverse City and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Nikki Probst, the vice president for business relations, responded to our questions.

How do or did you see the Grand Traverse market from a business perspective? 

The small business growth and innovation we’ve seen in northern Michigan has made it a market that we want to support and help expand. The community has big thinkers in technology. This makes it a key market to showcase our technology and solutions for start-up businesses that are collaborating across multiple locations in the state of Michigan.

Why did you invest in this market? 

The northern Michigan market has always been a part of our business representing Steelcase in the territory. We thought it was important to establish a brick and mortar presence in Traverse City to better serve the community with local resources. It’s important to have people on our team, like Colleen Smith, who have standing relationships in northern Michigan and can tell our story to K-12 schools, small businesses, corporations and healthcare clients. Embedding our presence in office spaces in Traverse City – we’re currently working out of 20Fathoms on Park Street – allows us to have a showroom to demonstrate our interior solutions and technology to interested customers firsthand.

What are the differences between operating your venture in Grand Rapids and doing so in or around Traverse City? 

It’s important in any market to be a part of the community where you work and build relationships in that area. Northern Michigan is a smaller, tight-knit area, so it is even more important to connect with business owners and help solve their specific needs. Of course, our presence is a little different than in Grand Rapids and Fort Wayne, Indiana, where we have dedicated office locations. In Traverse City we have always stationed ourselves within co-working facilities. Partnering with local businesses to establish a working environment has allowed us to help other business owners as they transition from a co-working space into a building of their own environment. For growing businesses, space matters, and we help them see how an integrated interior can support their best work.

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