May 23, 2019

What’s Your Issue?

Guest Opinion
By Gary Howe | April 27, 2019

While spring is renewing everything all over, I wish to ask each reader of this column to define, in a single word, the most important challenge facing our community. Or, you might prefer an alternate framing of the same question: What is the most important opportunity before our community?
 
Some of us will vociferously proclaim our chosen issue to be a grave threat or our community’s salvation. But most of us will settle on something that falls somewhere between a challenge and opportunity. The best answers do so often fall somewhere in the middle.
 
Our answers are likely to be mercurial. In the springtime, potholes will receive more votes than they deserve. Five summers ago, when we were suffering from Festival Fatigue, the top answer in Traverse City might have been events. It’s not easy to pull back from the hot topic of the moment and capture in one word the long-term challenge/opportunity our community most needs to face. 
 
It’s even harder to step back from our own milieu and interests to see the larger picture. My lifelong interest in urban planning is the determining factor of my first thoughts — sprawl. Parking. Transportation. Density. Affordability. Livability. Curb cuts. But if I’m honest, none of these are broad enough in scope to rank as the most important issue before us.
 
The environment springs to mind: climate, pollution, trees, the water. If I could get a text from each reader with their answer, I wouldn’t be surprised if many came back “the water!” intended as a proclamation and a statement of fact. And the water may indeed be the most important issue, but I’m uncertain what to do with that information compared to other proclamations.
 
Some answers would be more abstract. Health. Equity. Systems. Inclusivity. These things seem to be as important as they are meaningless in a shared understanding of their import and impact. Visioning sessions could dive into the nuances of each of these issues. A year later, we’d wander out wondering where all the time had gone.
 
What is my answer to my own question? The warm weather has me in a feisty mood, so I refuse to agree to my own request for a single word. Being a lover of libraries, I’m fond of the alphabetical, so I considered approaching my answers from A for accessibility to Z for zoning. But I’m also feeling whimsical, so I will settle on a geeky quintuplet of Ts: traffic, tourism, talent, taxes, and TIFs.
 
Traffic is a challenge before it’s an opportunity. On that, can we all agree? Traffic stresses us out and gets in our way. It invades our neighborhoods and makes our streets unsafe. We spend millions a year to make it “better,” while discounting our own individual contributing roles. But traffic is more of an opportunity than we care to admit. By choice and by design, many of your neighbors turn the frustration with traffic into an opportunity to get from here to there using non-automotive means. It’s exercise, stress relief, and environmental action all rolled into one. Mode-shift is also good for bottom lines, both public and private.
 
Tourismis like religion and politics. As a topic of discussion, it is best avoided when sharing cherry pie with friends and family. But it is, and is likely to remain, an enormous part of our economy, and it opens a window onto a larger world. At the macro level, tourists generate some of our best jokes and are at the root of financial burdens for our municipalities. But no one can deny that we view individual tourists more warmly. They are our summer neighbors, who give our dogs a treat every morning. They are our guests, our friends visiting for the weekend, our families up for the Cherry Festival, fellow athletes bunking with us during the triathlon. These beloved tourists remind us of ourselves before we moved to the region. “We always summered here, and now we live here (except, of course, for the six months we spend in New Mexico).”
 
I struggle to decide which of my remaining Ts ranks higher on the list of challenges and opportunities. Talentis still in short supply in our region, along with living wages and housing. Coincidence? At some point, will talent drawn here by tourism break the dam of “half the pay for a view of the bay” wages and NIMBY downtown housing policies?
 
Taxesfall lower on the list than they once did. Most of us don’t mind paying taxes when we see value in return. But when commissioners start talking about big ticket items like bridges and street reconstruction, arguments about how we should pay for nice things arise, and we have a challenge on our hands.
 
And that brings us to TIFs, our region's ultimate challenge/opportunity. I’m not sure anyone can clearly explain what TIFs are or how they work — I have a running challenge with my editor to come up with an illuminating analogy, and I’ve gotten nowhere. Still, everyone seems to have an opinion. Ideally, Tax Increment Financing allows local jurisdictions to invest in projects that would otherwise not be possible. But when and where do we use this powerful tool when even the experts struggle to explain how it works?
 
Greater Grand Traverse isn’t so different from other rural resort regions. We might be the most beautiful place in America (this week), but other beautiful places grapple with similar challenges and opportunities. I hope you will share your top issue with me. If you do, I promise to send you my thoughts on that particular day, because, be forewarned: My answer is different each time I ponder.
 
Gary L. Howe served as a city commissioner for Traverse City from 2013-2017. He is a New York Times-published freelance photographer and the new advocacy director at Norte. He invites you to send your one-word answer (or your geeky quintuplet) to garylhowejr@gmail.com or @glhjr on Twitter.

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