What ‘Brown’ Has Done For Us

Does effective public policy become poor policy when it crosses a street? Is a bad idea in one part of town a good idea when it’s implemented a few blocks away?

Those seem like odd questions. But they’re pertinent given the evolving attitudes among many local officials and residents over Michigan’s brownfield redevelopment law.

Public Act 381 of 1996 is now more than 20 years old. But it seems to be the subject of more misunderstanding, misinformation and even deliberate distortion than perhaps at any time in its history.

The Brownfield Redevelopment Financing Act is a widely utilized economic development tool, used throughout Michigan to help local communities revive blighted, contaminated or otherwise obsolete properties.

Traverse City has been particularly effective at utilizing brownfield and other development incentives to rebuild a downtown district that was gutted by the exit of major retailers and other economic factors during a late 20th century swoon. The use of brownfield policies, plus other tax increment financing tools to build public infrastructure and support new development, created the foundation of a major economic renaissance in Traverse City – not just downtown, but across Grand Traverse County. The policies created a northern Michigan economic center that has lifted the entire northwest lower Michigan region and given it an important seat at policy tables in Lansing and even Washington.

The success of brownfield redevelopment encouraged state lawmakers over the years to expand the law to increase the activities eligible for brownfield reimbursement. Among those is the cost of constructing underground parking, which as an economic development measure makes sense. It increases the development potential of surrounding parcels that are no longer needed to provide surface parking and, if allowed to be fully implemented, would reduce parking on neighborhood streets.

But a funny thing happened on the way to economic prosperity. Strategies that have ignited millions of dollars in new development – and local and state revenues – have been recast by some as project owner “windfalls” with more focus on the perceived financial benefit of the incentives than the much larger and enduring economic impact of the projects themselves.

People seem to have forgotten the empty lots, deteriorating buildings, polluted groundwater and other scars on the local landscape that brownfield incentives have helped erase. They are willing to sacrifice better developments, more jobs and public improvements in order to spite whatever advantage they may believe a project owner is receiving.

The phrase “Not in my backyard!” also seems to come into play when a project is proposed that may change the status quo of a particular neighborhood or even of a neighbor.

The twists in this love/hate relationship with effective public policy took another recent turn when city officials acknowledged that they’ve talked until “blue in the face” about ways to generate new investment along Traverse City’s Eighth Street.

But talk is cheap – and it doesn’t generate new tax base or public infrastructure.

So once again, the community will depend on public-private partnerships to spur development along the Eighth Street corridor – the same winning strategy that’s worked not only for downtown, but for West Front and Division streets, the Old Town district, Cass Street and elsewhere. This time, however, such a partnership faces a determined opposition that is hell-bent on fighting public involvement in development wherever it may occur – all prefaced with, “I’m not anti-development, but … ”

“Maybe we unfortunately have to turn a blind eye on some of our concerns some of the time to progress with development,” a prominent Traverse City official said of the Eighth Street development at Boardman Avenue, a project that represents the City’s best hope for a catalyst and synergy for its Eighth Street corridor vision.

“Turn a blind eye” to legal, additive, necessary tools to accomplish development in the public’s interest? One could argue there is a greater need for those opposed to such tools to open their eyes to what is possible for Traverse City and the region it supports and accelerate the region’s prosperity.

Grand Traverse County’s brownfield and economic development specialists are some of the best in Michigan. They’ve received state and national recognition and are regularly invited to speak in other communities to share their success stories from the Grand Traverse region.

We should be both thankful and proud that they’re able to effectively utilize state laws and incentives to build the local economy and to work with the private sector on major projects to help our region grow.
It’s clear that the need for these practices hasn’t gone away – and is certainly nothing to apologize for.

Doug Luciani is CEO of TraverseCONNECT and the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at doug@traverseCONNECT.org.