What to Watch: What will make headlines in 2022

by Craig Manning & Ross Boissoneau

It’s January and that means it’s time for the TCBN’s list of happenings in and around Traverse City as we head into the New Year. For the entire list, see the January issue on newsstands today.

Record-breaking mergers-and-acquisitions activity comes to northern Michigan

As of right now, 2021 is the biggest year in history for mergers and acquisitions (M&A).

While final tallies aren’t in just yet, the British-Dutch professional service network KPMG International predicted in October that worldwide M&A activity would hit a record $6 billion in 2021. If that proves to be true, then 2021’s total M&A action would be up an astonishing 40% compared to 2020’s total of $3.6 trillion – a number this year had already surpassed by August.

What’s driving all the M&A deals, and how might that activity impact the Traverse City business community in 2022 and beyond?

There are multiple factors that helped make 2021 a hotbed for M&A activity. Low interest rates, pent-up demand following the uncertainty of 2020 and a fairly robust stock market all helped set the stage for lots of deals in 2021. KPMG also reported that eight in 10 CEOs indicated that organic business growth opportunities were fairly slow in the midst of the continued COVID-19 pandemic, leading them to seek out inorganic growth sources instead, including M&A.

Traverse City has already seen a little bit of the recent surge in M&A activity. Experts say one of the biggest M&A trends in 2021 was acquisitions by SPACs, or special-purpose acquisition companies. SPACs are shell corporations that are publicly traded. They have no commercial operations to speak of, but rather exist to raise funds from investors with the goal of acquiring existing private companies. This type of merger allows a private company to go public without the traditional initial public offering process. Notably, Traverse City’s own Hagerty went public in December via a $3 billion SPAC merger with Aldel Financial.

Traverse City is also home to High Street Insurance Partners, an insurance company profiled in the December 2021 issue of the TCBN that has become one of the country’s leading acquirers of independent insurance agencies. High Street CEO Scott Wick told the TCBN that High Street’s final count of acquisitions for the 2021 calendar year would likely land at 87.

In addition to insurance, sectors like healthcare, technology, financial services, and retail tend to experience a good deal of M&A activity. These industries are likely the ones to watch in Traverse City if the turbocharged M&A market continues burning bright in 2022.

Will the area see another one of its top companies go public via SPAC? Will Traverse City’s growing tech scene attract the attention (and dollars) of larger companies? Will High Street Insurance Partners bring more of its consolidation efforts closer to home? And will Munson Healthcare – already one of the clearest examples of M&A growth in the region – bring even more healthcare offices under its wing? These are some of the big questions floating around local business as the calendar page flips to January.

Local DEI efforts

Northern Michigan is no stranger to national attention and recognition – most of it positive and much of it having to do with tourism draws like the Sleeping Bear Dunes or the Traverse City craft beer scene. But the biggest national headline about Traverse City in 2021 had nothing to do with beaches or beer.

“It started with a mock ‘slave trade’ and a school resolution against racism. Now a war over critical race theory is tearing this small town apart.”

Those words introduced a July 24 Washington Post article that quickly went viral on the internet. The piece detailed an incident at Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) in which students used a Snapchat group to host a mock slave auction where they pretended to trade classmates of color for money. Messages posted in the group included hateful statements like “all blacks (sic) should die” and “let’s start another holocaust (sic).”

In the wake of the Snapchat slave trade, which occurred in April, the TCAPS Board of Education scrambled to put together an equity resolution that would condemn racism and set goals for educating TCAPS students – most of whom are white – about topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

But those efforts ignited a local debate about indoctrination and critical race theory (CRT), which dragged out the resolution process until late July, when the TCAPS board officially adopted its fourth draft of the document.

The TCAPS issue was at the center of a busy year for Northern Michigan E3, the region’s anti-racism task force. According to Brett Sinclair, a DEI consultant who serves as council coordinator for E3, the organization spent 2021 settling in after nationwide racial reckoning in 2020 led to its formation.

Key efforts included working with the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Department to spur the approval and adoption of body cameras; building celebrations and education around holidays like Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Juneteenth; and launching a five-week culinary experience called Culture Kitchen, which invited local chefs from a variety of different cultural backgrounds to host online cooking classes.

Most crucially, Sinclair said, 2021 was about building connections and partnerships between E3 and local organizations like Hagerty, Oryana, The Good Bowl, the Dennos Museum Center, TART Trails, Traverse Area District Library, Right Brain Brewery, and multiple area churches. Those connections will help E3 as it moves forward and pursues future and ongoing missions, such as an initiative aimed at addressing youth mental health issues in the community.

Still, Sinclair noted that education remains central to E3’s mission and to the progress of DEI efforts in the community at large. He pointed to a recent incident at Traverse City Central High School – a threat of racial violence in mid-December that prompted TCAPS to close the school for a day – as proof that the district’s equity resolution is only the beginning of a longer process that needs to happen to ensure a safe, welcoming and accepting school community for all.

“It’s a solid resolution,” Sinclair said of the document the TCAPS board adopted in July. “But we don’t want to stop at that resolution, and we don’t want to say ‘Now that we have this resolution, we’re good.’ There needs to be action that comes from that, as a way of moving forward.”

E3 is eyeing the TCAPS strategic planning process – which is underway as of this past August – as the thing that could truly change the game for DEI efforts in local schools. That process will outline the goals, needs and priorities that TCAPS wants to focus on over the next three years.

Northwest Education Services (North Ed, formerly Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District) is spearheading the strategic planning process for TCAPS.

“(The strategic plan) needs to be the overall umbrella of how TCAPS moves forward with DEI work, and how they’re looking to protect all students,” Sinclair said. “We’re very interested to see how that plan shakes out.”

Realtors getting creative

As inventory levels continue to shrink and prices continue to escalate, area Realtors are thinking outside the box.

Sam Flamont of Mitten Real Estate Group, brokered by eXp Realty, and his financial partners purchased 80 acres south of Traverse City off Rusch Road where they will build their own inventory of homes to sell.

“The surveys are done,” he said.

One more step on the way to building 15 homes this year and as many as 125 on the property. The single-family homes will be priced between $400,00-$475,000.

Candace Raimi of Real Estate One is teaming up with Bay Area Recycling for Charities and architect Jess Glowacki of Ecophi Architecture to strip a home to its basic components and rebuild it as her personal residence.

“The process spoke to me,” she said.

Andy Gale, president of BARC, said the reverse panelization process will both reuse components and effectively recycle the labor put into the home originally as its 17 pieces are reassembled on other property. They intend it as a model for further deconstruction/reconstruction projects. BARC previously rebuilt other structures into sheds and tiny homes.

Sue Kelly of REO is going in another direction: She’s positioning her Evergreen TC project as a net-zero development. She’s working with officials in Garfield and Long Lake townships, as the project will utilize technology like SludgeHammer wastewater treatment and groundwater reclamation.

“The property lends itself to solar,” she said of the location on Gray Road just south of Cedar Run Road.

While she was originally hoping to start the two- and three-bedroom homes at $250,000, recent price increases may push the offerings to around $300,000.

FirstIgnite

Navigating the sometimes byzantine world of academia can be a challenge for companies looking for research and researchers related to their industries. How do they find real experts engaged in the area in which they’re working? For that matter, how do academics connect with those that might be interested in their research?

Turns out both questions have the same answer: Traverse City tech firm FirstIgnite.

“We connect companies, consultants and investors with global academic experts,” said Chase Bonhag, FirstIgnite CEO.

Bonhag said the company takes its cue from the aphorism “publish or perish,” the need for academics to publish their work to succeed in their career. FirstIgnite created a program that turns research journals into searchable text, enabling the company to search data from colleges, universities and other institutions across the world.

Bonhag said that global approach is what makes FirstIgnite so valuable. Where a company might call a nearby university in hopes of maybe finding someone conversant with the particular industry or concept it is interested in, FirstIgnite has the world at its fingertips, with the University of Krakow as familiar as the University of Michigan.

“If a major company wants to understand bio-plastics, we arrange access,” he said. “The client can (then) make more informed innovation decisions.”

Providing information to potential investors is crucial as well. Bonhag said FirstIgnite can connect them with authors of studies that can demonstrate whether a process is viable, and if so, whether it is worth investing in a company.

“Could battery technology change the world? That’s where our experts can say yes or no,” he said.

Northport rising

The tiny town on the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula may be on the cusp of something. Several somethings actually, from the opening of the county’s first recreational cannabis dispensary, Olean, to the purchases of landmark properties.

Tucker’s restaurant has been resurrected as the Northport Pub & Grille. The derelict Leelanau Memorial Health Center has been purchased by Northport resident Kyle Evans, with plans for a mixed-use development with potential for housing, retail, hospitality and more.

The mechanic’s garage on Nagonaba Street has been transformed into Northport Trading Post, selling stones, stone art, polishing kits and local products like honey and maple syrup.

Add the purchase of the Pier Group property next to Haserot Park and the marina by Amy Spitznagel, co-owner of Idyll Farm, as a location to celebrate the county’s culture, from local food and drink to art and general well-being.

County residents Lynden and Meghann Johncock and Steve and Carrie Ball of Old Mission Peninsula purchased the old Northport Inn and have designs on restoring it for lodging, drinking, dining and live entertainment.

Bo and Nicole White have opened the winery and coffeeshop Dune Bird at the former yak and alpaca farm Gills Pier Ranch, once home to Gills Pier Winery and complete with a 20-year-old vineyard.

The greatest challenge is that, like an island, you don’t go to Northport on the way to anywhere else. Those investing in the town say recognizing that and creating reasons for people to go there (and for locals to stay) is a challenge they relish.

“People don’t drive through Northport, they drive to Northport, and the point is to make it a destination,” Steve Ball has said.

Traverse City’s drinking culture

One of the biggest developments of 2021 for the City of Traverse City was the finalization of the city’s first Healthier Drinking Culture Strategic Plan.

The city, the Traverse City Police Department (TCPD), and the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) worked together on that project, with the help of two outside consulting firms – Statecraft and Parallel Solutions – and the feedback of more than 1,000 local stakeholders, from liquor license holders to downtown employees.

The resulting strategic plan outlines short and long-term steps that the city, the TCPD and the DDA can take to improve the community culture surrounding alcohol consumption in and around Traverse City.

The city commission officially adopted the Healthier Drinking Culture Strategic Plan in October and then reaffirmed support of the document in November after an election triggered a majority board turnover. Locals can expect to start seeing the impacts of the strategic plan in 2022, as the City of Traverse City, the TCPD and the DDA begin taking some of the action steps called for in the document. But what will those action steps be and how might they reshape Traverse City’s overall relationship with alcohol?

Key priorities identified in the strategic plan include establishing new policies for local drinking tour operators, increasing the presence of TCPD officers downtown, expanding the number of non-alcoholic craft beverages on the menus at downtown establishments, boosting marketing and signage to promote transportation options to customers who are drinking, promoting overnight parking options downtown, and installing more lighting and security cameras downtown.

Perhaps most crucially, the plan calls on the city to “create objective and clear criteria for the desired number, type, and location of liquor licenses, including at the neighborhood and corridor level.” Two former city commissioners – Roger Putman and Brian McGillivary – were vocal throughout their terms about the city’s lack of defined policy for evaluating the quality of liquor license applications or controlling the number of liquor license holders. The Healthier Drinking Culture Strategic Plan should push commissioners to craft new policies and protocols to that effect in 2022.

“Now that there is a plan, there will need to be discussion as to permits that come before us,” said Richard Lewis, Traverse City’s newly elected mayor, when asked for his stance on liquor licenses and drinking culture in the city.

Lewis says that the there are new (licenses) and transfers – either within the city or from out of the city – which require consideration.

“It is not how ‘I’ want to process those, but how ‘we’ want to process those permits while implementation of this plan is undertaken,” he said. “We should have that discussion sooner rather than later.”

The following “What to Watch” stories are also included in the January TCBN: 

  • An evolving downtown Traverse City
  • Festivals & events in Traverse City
  • Renewable energy
  • 20 Fathoms
  • Michigan Tech’s Traverse City presence
  • Recreational marijuana in Traverse City
  • Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities
  • Elk Rapids on the move

 

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