The Women of Downtown: A definitive look at some of the women shaping Traverse City’s downtown into the envy of cities across the state
Last month, Jean Derenzy took over the reins as CEO of Traverse City’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA), joining a cadre of female leaders. In her role, Derenzy will work with about 200 retail and restaurant businesses operating in the district, of which an estimated 70 percent are owned, co-owned or led by women.
Here’s a look at downtown’s female movers and shakers, what drives their work today and their vision for the district’s future.
Jean Derenzy, CEO, Traverse City Downtown Development Authority
Jean Derenzy joined the DDA after 30 years of working for Grand Traverse County, most recently as director of community development and its interim administrator. Derenzy brings extensive knowledge and experience in public administration, planning, community building, development and brownfield activities. She joins Marketing and Deputy Director Colleen Paveglio and Parking Administrator Nicole VanNess at the DDA offices on East State Street.
Getting started: One of the things I really like about the city is its community engagement … working together and all moving in the direction of building a strong city. We have such a great downtown. It’s important that we work together to preserve it, keep it strong and help it grow.
Professional joys: I really enjoy working in the public space and seeing projects come to fruition. I’m looking forward to doing that with downtown. What do we want to see over the next 10 to 15 years? And how do we plan and how do we connect? Downtown is a connector to the rest of our community. How do we connect to our great neighborhoods and how do our corridors connect with downtown? How do we connect our residents with the Boardman River, with public art or the Open Space? How do we build on the great work that’s already been done?
Challenges: The greatest challenge is getting it all done. We have so many opportunities. But it’s important to make sure everyone is heard and our connections with the neighborhoods and property owners are strong. The DDA’s role is to be a connector and a manager to figure out how to get things done together.
Drawing inspiration: I love the energy, the synergies and the wonderful opportunities for community engagement. The passion that everyone brings is inspiring.
What’s next? We need to keep our downtown strong. Diversity of our retail, breweries and restaurants, as well as strong, healthy businesses, positive energy and synergies. When there are needs, it’s important to identify them and develop solutions to address them.
Colleen Paveglio, marketing and deputy director, Traverse City Downtown Development Authority
Colleen Paveglio has been involved in downtown Traverse City’s marketing efforts since joining the DDA in 2004. She was named deputy director in 2015 and has helped lead downtown’s signature events, the association’s promotions, branding and media relations as well as substantial planning and community building for such endeavors as the Traverse City Public Art Policy, the proposed farmers market, a downtown TC website, and the West End and Warehouse District developments.
Getting started: I moved to Traverse City after graduating from Michigan State University with no job, simply because I wanted to live here. I fell in love with downtown after my brother took me out to lunch at Poppycock’s, then I stood on top of a hill, looking out at the water and made my declaration. Traverse City was home; my happy place.
Professional joys: I love downtown and the positive impact that it has on the community. The diverse mix of stores and the talent that we have in the culinary arts really shows how downtown is the heartbeat of the region.
Challenges: Finding a balance of work/life in a position like this is what is most challenging. The public sector can always provide challenges, but we work hard to contribute toward a vibrant city center that the community can enjoy.
Drawing inspiration: Public improvements projects can make for a proud moment, but the creative side of things at the office is what really keeps me going. This past year, initiating a Light Parade, seeing it come to fruition and creating a new tradition for the community is an example.
What’s next? I’m looking forward to the [Sara Hardy] Farmers Market reconstruction project. It’s an exciting project that provides an economic impact to downtown and to the agricultural region with components that create people, places and engagement of the Boardman River. Downtown Traverse City hosts the largest farmers market in northern Michigan and we are excited about this project’s potential.
Nicole VanNess, Traverse City parking administrator, Traverse City Downtown Development Authority
Nicole VanNess began her parking career just weeks after moving to Traverse City in June 2003 when retired parking administrator Gil Rupp hired her as a part-time cashier for the new Larry C. Hardy Parking Garage. As her skills and scope grew over the years, she worked her way to parking management. VanNess left Michigan from 2007-2014 to gain additional professional experience, before returning to the DDA as parking administrator in 2014.
Getting started: I’m thankful to be back. I love the vibrancy of main streets across America and thankful to call ours home. Traverse City’s downtown is the heart of the community. We have so much to offer. My husband and I enjoy supporting the businesses, frequenting our favorite restaurants and looking forward to sharing this with our daughter.
Professional joys: I like the challenge. Downtown is growing. It’s a good thing. Parking doesn’t have to be boring. I love exploring ways to offer additional services and integrating new technologies.
Challenges: Communicating parking options is something that our staff strives to improve on a regular basis, along with planning for future developments and how to lessen the impact on inventory.
Drawing inspiration: Travel. Every community feels their parking issues are unique but, no matter where you go, people have to park. There isn’t a “one size fits all” approach. It’s really about understanding the issue at hand and finding solutions.
What’s next? Utilization and technology are key, whether we build a third parking structure or partner with [Bay Area Transit Authority] on transit options. As we continue to grow and build density, we have to create efficiency with the utilization and management of the parking spaces that we have available. We will continue to seek out and find the right resources to help our [visitors] with their downtown experience since we are often the start of that experience.
THE GALLERY OWNERS
Sue Ann Round, owner, Michigan Artists Gallery
Sue Ann Round relocated her Michigan Artists Gallery to downtown Traverse City in May 2015 after operating the gallery for 19 years in Suttons Bay. The contemporary gallery offers an eclectic mix of fine art from award-winning artists in various media. Located at 317 East Front Street, the gallery stands as an artistic anchor on one end of downtown, bookended by Shanny Brooke’s Higher Art Gallery on Union Street.
Getting started: [Former DDA head] Bryan Crough would visit me when the gallery was in Suttons Bay and kept saying, ‘We need you downtown.’ He was always very persuasive!
But, it was really about moving back to Traverse City and that my business could be stronger downtown. I had moved back to my family home on Second Street to help my mom during her final years. Then, I was faced with choices: Keep the gallery in Suttons Bay; stay in Traverse City; consider a move? I was intrigued with downtown because so many family members had businesses there through the generations: There was Rounds Music, my father was at Grand Traverse Electric, an uncle owned the Whiting Hotel, an aunt had a fabric shop, my great-grandfather founded East Jordan Iron Works and then started a similar business in Traverse City. It was a huge roll of the dice because I put everything in the move … but it’s also very exciting to put my own mark on downtown. And, how many people can say they can kayak to work!
Professional joys: I love representing these creative artists and finding really unique works to display. At Michigan Artists Gallery, I wanted to create a space that was inviting and where people can come in and get uplifted. I just love when visitors say, ‘I’m well traveled, but this is my favorite gallery.’
Challenges: There is always the challenge of seasonality and making the business work year-round. I was very well known in Suttons Bay, locally and with the summer people. A challenge is to bring those patrons to the new store while also building up awareness for those who have never been inside or regularly frequent this part of Front Street. But, we’re working on it and it’s certainly worth it.
Drawing inspiration: It’s a very good feeling at the end of every month to write checks to those that make their living creating art. Giving a voice to their work is part of the fulfillment for me.
What’s next? Shanny Brooke at Higher Art Gallery and I are collaborating on a great show – the Peaceable Kingdom – that will feature both galleries, 35 of her artists and 50 of mine, each interpreting Edward Hicks’ “The Peaceable Kingdom” with their own work. The opening will be the night of the Downtown Art Walk on May 4 and then run through June 30. It’s similar to the “Channeling Picasso: Woman in the Green Hat” show I did last spring, but on a much larger scale. It will be a really fun way to engage people in the art and our galleries. It’s also a great way for us to support each other, women supporting women, to benefit both galleries.
Shanny Brooke, director and owner, Higher Art Gallery
Shanny Brooke opened Higher Art Gallery at 126 South Union Street in November 2016. Her contemporary gallery represents close to 50 national artists, with a focus on emerging and mid-career artists, as well as some of northern Michigan’s most established and well known artists. An expressive, abstract painter, Brooke’s personal studio is located on site, filled with oil and acrylic works in progress.
Getting started: I saw a real need for a contemporary gallery in our region. Michigan Artists Gallery offers a delightful selection of art. I knew I could be a few blocks away and offer something completely different. What brought me and keeps me downtown is quite simply the location. In a business such as an art gallery, it is already an uphill climb. Being downtown [increases] exposure for all the amazing artists which Higher Art Gallery represents.
Professional joys: I love exposing our community to new art perspectives and techniques. I also enjoy the camaraderie of my fellow downtown business owners and employees. I also love collaborating with other businesses and being a downtown ambassador for how important creativity and supporting visual art is.
Challenges: I do not know that I consider this a challenge, but some people feel challenged by some of the artwork which I exhibit. It is an age-old debate, but many feel that art is meant to challenge … to make one think. However, [there are] some who think art should be nothing more than a pretty picture. I enjoy giving people something to chew on intellectually or emotionally when they come into the gallery.
Drawing inspiration: My inspiration often comes from working on my own art. Creating artwork actually creates more ideas. You never run out of ideas. I am also constantly amazed at the 50 or so artists which we represent. They inspire me and drive me to not give up, even when we are in the dead of winter and no one is coming through the door.
What’s next? I have so many ideas. I hope to be more involved with public art in our community. My other plans are in the works and will reveal themselves soon.
Patty Hickman, co-owner, The Dish Café
Patty Hickman moved to Traverse City 20 years ago to work and enroll in Northwestern Michigan College’s Culinary Arts program. She and her husband Randy Waclawski have owned The Dish Café on Union Street for 11 years.
Getting started: I have lived and worked downtown for the last 17 years. From day one, I knew I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I always knew I wanted to own my own restaurant, but never really had the guts to do it myself. Randy and I together decided we could. We gathered our savings, talked some family members, friends and a bank to loan us some money to buy the ‘old’ Dish. The location was perfect, but the business needed some new blood. We decided we’d run with the same concept, and if it didn’t work, we’d start over. All we really wanted was to get a foot in the door downtown.
Professional joys: Three years ago, we welcomed a beautiful son to our family. This is when our work priorities changed. We had to first figure out logistics of operating a business and family, but then how to grow the business to support a family. This is also when I realized how ‘small’ downtown Traverse City really is. Family is everything. Customers really open up and take a personal interest when children are involved.
Challenges: The first few years, we dealt with the challenges of seasonality (parades, snowstorms and everything in between.) We made it through the recession by being an affordable option for locals and tourists. The next few years we saw the challenges of a growing downtown and needing to solidify our spot among all of the new restaurants and businesses joining downtown TC. We had to stand fast to our business model as being a healthy, affordable, quick and friendly option for locals for lunch and dinner.
Drawing inspiration: We decided to expand, remodel and update to meet the challenges. We added a liquor license and bar to expand the hours and capabilities of our business. We tried to keep the fresh, healthy, casual feel with our interior design and menu, and also wanted to make The Dish Cafe a place where families of all ages and stages can feel comfortable. We have chosen to partner with and support groups focused on children, fitness, health, community and arts. These are things that drive me and the wellbeing of my family.
What’s next? I am in TC for the long haul and want our business to be something our son can be proud of as he grows up in this community.
Misha Neidorfler, owner, Morsels Espresso + Edibles
Misha Neidorfler founded Morsels Espresso + Edibles with husband Jeff 10 years ago this month. The shop is known for its bite-sized baked goods, espresso and made-to-order coffee along with unique cafe fare for breakfast and lunch. Originally located in cozy quarters on the corner of Cass and East Front streets, Morsels expanded menu and space when it moved into the former Belstone Gallery, overlooking the Boardman River, at 321 East Front Street.
Getting started: I grew up in Traverse City and remember the vibrant downtown from my childhood. I also watched it fade as the malls became more intriguing in the early 1990s. When my husband and I decided to move our family back to TC after being gone about 15 years, I wanted to contribute to the energy that was emerging again in downtown TC.
What keeps us downtown is being in the heart of the action, having an incredible view of the bay and the Boardman River and being surrounded by a supportive group of small business owners all working toward the same goal: to keep our downtown thriving!
Professional joys: I love entrepreneurship because every day is an opportunity to be creative, to solve problems, to make up something new and fun to keep our business moving forward. I love the daily challenge and excitement that comes with running my own business. I also love that Morsels brings people together. Our shop is a hub for business meetings, social gatherings, family time, and post-workout refuel. We have tried to create a happy, bright and open space for people to gather and enjoy time with one another. I also love running into colleagues, friends and my mom when I pop out of the office to grab a cup of coffee!
Drawing inspiration: Collaboration is inspiring to me. In 2017, we started a nonprofit partnership with a different area organization each month. We make a special morsel just for them and then donate $.25 of each one sold to that nonprofit. We wanted to give back to our incredibly supportive community in a meaningful way that benefits a variety of organizations, while allowing us to showcase our namesake product. Another example is our partnership with the National Writers Series to make a unique morsel flavor for each of their guest authors. We develop a flavor based on the author’s name, NWS serves them and the author receives a box. It’s such a perfect collaboration because our morsel flavors are creatively named using puns, rhymes, idioms and other plays on words … and who doesn’t appreciate that more than writers?
What’s next? Morsels is in the running for the Sweetest Bakery in America contest, which is so exciting! We are proud to be representing Traverse City. As the Downtown Traverse City Association (DTCA) board president, I am excited that our successful programs continue to evolve. DTCA introduced the Holiday Light Parade last December and we continue to host traditional events that our community loves, like the Downtown Chili Cook-off and Friday Night Live. We have a very engaged group of merchants in downtown TC for which we’re very grateful!
Jennifer Viren, proprietor, Taproot Cider House
Jennifer Viren launched Taproot Cider House in January 2016 after several years in the food business. Before the doors opened at the corner of East Front and Park streets, Viren oversaw a major renovation of the Taproot space, transforming a former deli and coffee shop that once housed Crema and the EuroStop Café into a warm, rustic tavern serving hard ciders, cocktails and farm-to-table fare. Music was later added to the menu with a regular slate of performers, events and open mike nights.
Getting started: I am a native to Traverse City and love the downtown energy and community.
Professional joys: I enjoyed getting my hands in the dirt and now get a chance to bring the farm to the table. When I am in Taproot, I can feel the positive energy of downtown. I am surrounded by good neighbors who help protect our Great Lakes.
Challenges: The demands of running a business and having a wholesome family life can be challenging. From the business perspective, keeping up with the many pivotal aspects of government regulations.
Drawing inspiration: Establishing relationships within our community while supporting the growth of biodiverse small farmers and the booming craft cider industry. The positive feedback fuels my drive of extending my passions in a healthy environment, eats and love of local music.
What’s next? Starting a small organic farm, winery and continuing the network of local vendors.
Alison Knowles, owner, Cali’s
Alison Knowles is one of downtown’s longest-running retailers, having opened Cali’s in 1986. Known for embracing individual style with an eclectic mix for wardrobe and home, the boutique features women’s clothing with an emphasis on quality, natural fibers and unique detailing by local designers and small independent lines from the USA and Europe as well as jewelry by local and free trade artisans. Cali’s was originally located on Union Street but moved to its current home at 242 East Front St. during the early 1990s. Knowles expanded further 20 years ago when the shop’s second floor became available. Knowles introduced Cali’s home division, a curated collection of unique home accessories, found objects and reclaimed furniture.
Getting started: Love of the community brought us downtown and keeps us here. No one was carrying the type of clothes we wanted to bring to people who were looking for more natural fibers at the time we opened. The home division was a return to my original background in interior design.
Professional joys: I love the creative aspect of the job but especially enjoy the relationships we have with our clients.
Drawing inspiration: It has been something that has always been in me. I draw from the aesthetic of things around me and by observing. I like to keep it innovative and not trend driven.
What’s next? I’m working on that!
Mindy Cotner, owner, Raven’s Child
Mindy Cotner was 14 when her mother, Laurel Loomis, opened Raven’s Child in 1991 as a “grown-up boutique for the young at heart.” Loomis grew the business for 25 years, moving into progressively larger spaces in three downtown locations, including its current home at 220 East Front Street in 2005. Cotner has owned the business since 2016.
Getting started: I took over the business in 2016 at age 42 after my mother passed away suddenly. She gave so much of herself over the years and was such an inspiration, I couldn’t bear to let it go. This is our third downtown Traverse City address and I think my mother chose to stay for the same reason I do: It is a beautiful and vibrant area. After living in Chicago for many years it reminds me of the neighborhoods full of great boutiques and restaurants that have so much personality and style.
Professional joys: The best thing about my work is seeing people return over the years, and hearing that people love their clothes and appreciate us being here … it reinforces my belief that small boutiques are relevant in a world that has gotten fairly impersonal when it comes to shopping. Sometimes nothing beats a friendly familiar face and we couldn’t be here without taking care of our customers.
Challenges: I think my biggest frustration comes when people are afraid to interact with my staff and me. We are so wanting to help, without any pressure. We don’t hover and press and tell you how amazing you look in things … unless you really do! We truly know our products and don’t want anyone to walk out with something that isn’t right for them.
Drawing inspiration: My inspiration and passion first starts with my mother and grandmother. Smart, strong women! My grandmother owned restaurants and antique stores with my grandfather. [She] loved beautiful things and making people feel at home. My mother got that passion from her and, well, here I am!
What’s next? My dream for downtown is that it will continue to become a year-round destination for everyone.
Renee Sovis and Annie Zimmerman, co-owners, one oak bride
One of downtown’s newest businesses, one oak bride opened in December 2016 at 121 East Front St., suite 108. Co-owners and lifelong friends Renee Sovis and Annie Zimmerman drew from their own wedding planning experiences and professional expertise. Their dream? To create an indie bridal boutique that provides unique wedding dresses and memorable experiences for modern, non-traditional brides and their wedding parties.
Getting started: We’ve loved, lived and worked downtown for what feels like our whole lives. When we decided we wanted to open a business in our hometown, we knew we wanted to be in the downtown mix. We love the energy, our neighbors and being in walking distance to all our favorite happy hour locations. Plus, our brides come from all over to see us and then get to be immersed in the heart of TC. We love giving them lunch/brunch and adventure ideas. We deal in wedding dresses, but we consider ourselves northern Michigan concierges as well.
Professional joys: Our typical day involves getting to meet local and destination brides and their tribes. We hear love stories all day. What’s not to love? If we aren’t taking appointments, we can usually be found hobnobbing with other local wedding industry folk (a.k.a. some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, who are passionate about throwing parties.) Suffice it to say, we have zero complaints.
Drawing inspiration: Both recently being non-traditional brides ourselves, inspiration struck us each individually during that experience. Fast forward a bit and it all came together when Annie proposed the idea of partnership and the rest is herstory.
What’s next? Our vision for downtown’s future is to continue low vacancy and to keep up sustainable growth. Our vision for our future? Well, that is top-secret. We just passed our first-year milestone and will be reveling in this magic for a bit before making any more.
Amy Reynolds, acting CEO, owner, Horizon Books of Traverse City and Cadillac
Horizon Books overlooks downtown Traverse City from its three-story building anchoring the 200 block of East Front Street, almost directly across from the small storefront where the book shop was founded in 1961 at 242 East Front Street. Amy Reynolds joined Horizon Books in 1977, watched the evolution and helped grow the business in Traverse City as well as downtown locations in Cadillac and, for many years, in Petoskey. Among the highlights was the 1993 purchase of Horizon’s current home, the former J.C. Penney building, at a time when many stores were abandoning Front Street. The move rallied the community around downtown, including 200 volunteers who walked 30,000 books across the street to Horizon’s new home, staking the bookstore as a downtown anchor. Today, Reynolds serves as Horizon Books’ acting CEO and owner, as well as a staunch advocate for downtown Traverse City.
Getting started: City centers were the place to be in 1961. [Husband] Vic Herman, founder and owner … knew Traverse City well because he grew up in Suttons Bay. We have owned our real estate at all locations, which gives us a real interest in the downtowns. It has also provided built-in rent control and kept the bookstores in business as we [competed] with malls and online ordering.
Downtown Traverse City is the heart and soul of the region from retail to restaurants, performances to politics. One of the great successes has been the summer Friday Night Lives. I think that a key to that success was keeping it local and neighborly, like a big block party. It’s comfortable. Our store is also often described as inviting and comfortable.
Professional joys: There is something different, every day. I love walking to work, greeting staff and customers and being surrounded by books. Whether I’m providing entertainment or information or knowledge, it’s exciting and gratifying to match the perfect book to the reader. I do a lot of the sideline buying and love to ‘go shopping’ for the store.
Challenges: The bookstore industry has challenges ahead. Fulfillment is one; price is another. Staying on top of social media and digital content to satisfy customers’ needs and expectations is another. Retail in general is difficult and challenging.