Turn the City over to the Dogs
By Gary Howe | March 13, 2021
We'd heard that they were coming, but we didn't know how long they'd stay. The public didn't usually take time to attend our monthly Parks and Recreation Commission meetings. Still, on this particular Thursday evening, 10 long years ago, a controversial project on West Bay was on the agenda. As we expected, over 100 people came to speak on it.
The other group of individuals we'd heard were coming sat patiently in the back of the room. They weren't there for the controversy. They weren't even on the agenda. They were there to request that Traverse City build the area's first off-leash dog park. They might as well have been asking to put dogs on Mars.
The city was in the middle of a multimillion-dollar transformation of its bayfront. The parks and rec commission — although it was growing in importance — was still an advisory body with no authority. Any progress that came out of the commission came from the sheer doggedness of city residents and the commission's volunteer members.
That spring night, when we finally made it to the point in the meeting where the general public gets to comment, two city residents, Jami and Levi, rose from their seats in the back to propose a dog park within the city limits on behalf of their small group of supporters. They explained that their requests to the township and the county had been unsuccessful. "It's just a fence," they said to the commission. "We can do this before summer starts. Traverse City can do this."
It's no secret that I prefer dogs over people, generally speaking. When I travel to other cities and towns, I visit the places people set aside for dogs to run and play. So I was strongly sympathetic to Jami and Levi's cause. As a parks and rec commission member, I knew that the city had recently added the establishment of a dog park to its five-year plan. And as an observer of local politics, I knew that this request from a small group of citizens for a dog park didn't stand much of a chance in the city manager's office or with the city commission, even with our commission's recommendation; in 2011, the city's top leaders were focused on reducing staff, reducing costs, and paving roads. If we were to wag the dog on this one, we'd need a plan.
"I'm with you," I told Jami and Levi after the meeting. "I appreciate your optimism, but we need to work on your timeline. Success is going to take a lot of work." They left, suspicious but committed. A month later, they returned to our monthly meeting to remind us of their request, and the parks and rec commission created a subcommittee to work with the dog-park champions.
We didn't open the dog park before summer, as Jami and Levi had hoped. Advocacy for good, even for good dogs, is rarely a straight line. It took over a year and a half to open Wags West, which is still today the city's only off-leash dog park (there's now also Silver Lake Dog Park 10 minutes west of town). It took nine months to develop a plan and get it before the city commission. It took another six months for the city to bid for fencing. It took the better part of a year to raise the $30,000 it cost to build the park. It took a few more years to add water stations and a donor sign. Thank you, everyone.
To navigate this long journey from civic-improvement idea to public-infrastructure reality, we created a vision and a step-by-step plan to get there. The schedule kept us optimistic when obstacles nipped at our heels and howls of opposition filled the skies. Here’s how we approached it:
We set a clear goal. We wanted an off-leash dog park, where dogs and people could socialize, in the city. We referred to it as an off-leash human park. We wanted to bring people together as much as we wanted to make lives better for our canine friends.
We defined the issue. Dog parks were becoming increasingly popular around the country. Formal dog parks in the U.S. took off in 1979, but there wasn't a single dog park in our region when we began this process in 2011. Establishing an off-leash dog park would meet the growing number of dog owners' needs and improve the City's quality of life and economic vitality.
We built a coalition. We launched an outreach strategy that included a public survey on the issue and awareness-building events around the community. Businesses showed their pro-dog tags by signing on and promoting the cause. As the coalition grew, so did the momentum.
We identified obstacles. Funding was chief among the project's barriers to success. We knew the city commission would not acquiesce to any money coming from the city's budget. So we raised money. The parks and rec commission also held public hearings and listened to concerns. My favorite came from a gentleman who proudly stood up and told us, "I live near the proposed site. I can see why you chose it and agree it is a good location. I came today to let you know I don't want it near me, but I wish you good luck." After the meeting, we walked the site with him and talked about ways to improve our plans.
We stuck to our plan. All good plans are adapted as they meet the realities of time. Our path to dog park glory had its share of twists and turns. But we kept our noses on the scent and reached our quarry.
We celebrated. In any endeavor, an essential step is the celebration of victories. After we were approved, we celebrated with a Mardi-Paws celebration. And when the fence was complete in the fall of 2012, we threw a party in the park with dogs and humans, both off-leash, to attend. There were prizes, costumes, and plenty of ear scratching.
Eight years later, we're still celebrating. We champions have all gone our separate ways, but every time we pass the corner of Division Road and Bay Street, we shout out to the dogs and people happily enjoying a place reserved for them to be themselves. We also bay encouragement to others looking to make their community better. Stay on the hunt.
Gary Howe served on the City of Traverse City's Parks and Recreation Commission from 2009–2014.