Sleeping Giant no more: Leelanau County development accelerates

TRAVERSE CITY – Aside from its National Park moniker, there is nothing sleepy about Leelanau County.

Development is raging there on a scale that its county planner says is "unprecedented." There are multi-million dollar projects of all kinds being pitched to township leadership-windmill farms and water parks, anyone?-who walk a precarious tightrope keeping their constituency happy while following the legal guidelines set by their master plans.

Humming away under the sonic boom of big splashy projects is the constant drone of single-family residences, a construction phenomenon that has doubled in activity since the 1980s and shows no end in sight.

"The numbers say there is a steady development of single family residential," said Trudy Galla, Leelanau County planner. "That's where the true growth is…and because they go in one or two at a time, nobody pays attention."

While 2000 census numbers show 93 percent of Leelanau County remains undeveloped, developers large and small are moving dirt and cashing in wherever they can.

"The bottom line is Leelanau County is seeing attention from larger scale developers and investors because it is the gem of the north and they know it," said Cliff Boomer, a residential developer and cherry farmer. "People are willing to pay a ridiculous amount to come live here for a few months a year."

Currently, several large developments are either under way or almost finished. Three developers alone-McKeough Land Co., Timberline Enterprises, and Livingston Building Co.-have projects in Northport, Suttons Bay, and Empire totaling 824 units, worth well over $250 million.

The developers say the demand is there-a few have completely sold out, most are half sold out, and a few are still in the pre-sale stage.

These three developers alone are building housing for 824 families, increasing at once the estimated county population of 22,500 by almost four percent should the units sell out.

But who is coming to live here? Young families are not as evidenced by the declining student enrollment, projected to fall from 2,720 this year to 2,200 by 2009.

This dichotomy puzzles many who build and live here. They wonder about the county's future infrastructure, especially when it comes to the schools.

"It does puzzle me, how much growth there is, yet the schools are failing," said Suttons Bay resident Kim Murray, who grew up in Empire. "I thought that when all this building was happening, people might send their kids to public schools, but they're not. I guess people have the means to send their kids other places and they don't mind driving."

Though numbers show a steady population increase, they don't show where the population is coming from. Speculation for the most part points to downstate and Chicago money flowing into the county, said Karen Ardery, sales and marketing manager for BayView Condominiums and Yacht Club.

"Though we have a couple of local retired families who have bought here, most are from the Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Indiana area," she said.

With Kate Wickstrom's recent announcement that she hopes to sink $50 million into Sugarloaf Resort, creating a snowboard and skate park alongside luxury condominiums, the appeal to Baby Boomers and their families will continue to go strong, said Mark Fisher, vice chairman of the Cleveland Township planning commission.

"My observation is that everything is good-things change in life and the county continues to change," he said. "And that's a step forward." BN