Small-town Character is a State of Mind
By Christie Minervini | Jan. 6, 2018
As we move past the November Traverse City election and look forward to 2018, the close vote totals illustrate that there is no clear mandate for future decisions regarding growth. Like many other communities, Traverse City continues to wrestle with issues of development and change.
I have found that where there is economic growth and prosperity, there are always those of us who want to stop or stall progress. Maybe because of nostalgia or even parochial interests, we start to question the public planning documents that we had adopted to control and shape how we use our land.
We rail against prospective development projects using “small-town character!” as our battle cry — cleverly co-opting an image that the entire community supports in order to further restrict the policies we originally helped to create. Frustrated, we criticize local government and community leaders who have been tasked with implementing these plans.
Letters to the editor, opinion columns, and social media commentary are used to promote the idea of protecting small-town character without actually defining what it is that needs protection.
So, what exactly do we mean when we say “small-town character?" Spelling it out isn't that easy. But in a very broad sense, I think we believe small-town character is that which prevents us from experiencing “big city” problems.
Understanding this, anti-development preservationists disingenuously warn that Traverse City could eventually become the next Grand Rapids, Detroit, or even Chicago.
Keep in mind, Traverse City currently ranks 133 for population size in Michigan. There are literally 132 other municipalities in our state that are larger than ours. According to the last census estimate, Traverse City has grown only 3.5 percent since 2000.
Like many, I'm increasingly concerned about embracing public policy where preservation is a hammer and every development project is a nail. Today, if you want to win an election (or pass a referendum), it’s smart to run on a platform of “preserving small-town charm” or "protecting the neighborhoods." Savvy politicians know that using the term “slow growth” is really code for no growth.
In my opinion, successful land use policies have a lot less to do with the form of buildings as they do with how they interact with the public sphere. Adding another 50 subdivisions, detached from one another and congesting our streets, will be far more destructive than building up and filling in our downtown.
To me, small-town character is less about our density and building heights, and more about our residents and their shared values.
The social fabric of Traverse City is woven with community goals, civic participation, and proximity to close friends and family. Other elements that contribute to our unique character include opportunities for entertainment, food and culture, clubs and sports, service organizations, and religious activity.
As residents, we care about our history — not only our historic buildings and landmarks but also the generations that designed and built them. We honor the indigenous people who lived on the land before settlers developed it.
Whether newcomers or multi-generation natives, our people are what make Traverse City special. We care about our city and each other.
We care about our jobs and businesses, our cultural and natural resources, and our downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. We value our health care and educational institutions, our airport and transit systems, our library and our YMCA. We delight in our opera house and performing arts centers, our parks and open spaces, our marina and our movie theaters.
We also care about our poor and vulnerable. The same city that raised funds to rehab the historic State Theatre in the span of a few months donated $1.75 million to build an emergency homeless shelter a few blocks away. Both operate with the help of thousands of volunteers, many of whom are retired and looking for a way to give back to the city that they love.
As Traverse City residents, we know that change is inevitable. But we also have a sense of control along with the ability to be heard and influence that change.
Growth doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It is, however, problematic when residents take the approach of an exclusive gated community. A staunch no-growth stance is a dangerous way to confront the pressure that our expanding region is putting on our small city.
I'm not sure we will ever have consensus on the definition of small-town character. And I find it sad that something that should unite us continues to be the subject of divisiveness.
Perhaps a better goal is to agree on what it could be: a state of mind. One in which we behave as if we live in a small city where our actions affect the entire community, and where we work cooperatively to achieve a collective vision for growth.
Christie Minervini is a Traverse City resident who owns Sanctuary Handcrafted Goods in the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. She is passionate about gender equality, community development, and ending homelessness.