Spotlight on Sustainability: Planning for a self-sufficient Grand Traverse County, Michigan

Photo courtesy of flickr user Shan213.

Located in northwest Michigan and with a population of about 90,000 people, Grand Traverse County boasts a host of natural amenities and idyllic Great Lakes beauty. But like most places across the country, it has faced an economic slowdown in recent years.

Unlike most other places, though, the communities and local governments in the area decided to take advantage of the recession, using it as a chance to pause and assess what residents wanted for the future. That unique, forward-thinking perspective has helped Grand Traverse County create a vision for the region as a whole moving forward.

Coming out of an extended phase in which its local governments and planning commissions simply tried to manage growth, Grand Traverse County sought to create a system that would better account for expected development and direct it toward shared County goals. With the input of tens of thousands of the public gathered through surveys, public meetings, and discussions, the Grand Vision was born. Encompassing six priorities –transportation, growth and investment, housing, food and farming, sustainable energy, and natural resources – the Grand Vision is a commitment from local organizations and people to move towards a shared plan for the region.

The Grand Traverse County Master Plan and Housing Strategy, funded by a HUD Community Challenge grant, builds off of these six priorities and addresses the development of housing for families of all income levels and neighborhood corridor revitalization.

“The Master Plan is really about being self-sufficient,” says John Sych, Planning and Development Director for Grand Traverse County and the facilitator for the plan. “Grand Traverse County is very rural in a lot of ways. Even though Traverse City – the county seat – is urban, it’s not urban enough to qualify for a lot of urban-specific funding grants and the like, so we needed to find a way to address how we are going to fund our future, but in a sustainable and self-sustaining way.”

Tied into the idea of self-sufficiency is the region’s booming tourism industry. Grand Traverse County has always been an attractive tourist destination, known for its pristine natural beauty and temperate climate.

“The summer population is 30,000-40,000 higher than at other times of the year,” Sych says, “so managing that kind of influx every year is always a challenge.” While this massive inflow of people every year is a boon to the local economy, Sych says that the region must diversify its economy more if it is to thrive.

Toward this end, the county has sought to attract businesses and provide incentive for them to stay.

“Many businesses are attracted by the quality of life here, the kind of great living and working environment that they can offer to their employees,” Sych says. He also notes that an important aspect of attracting businesses is attracting young talent. This, he says, is the key factor in deciding on the types of housing development the county should pursue.

“We’re not seeing a lot of traditional suburban development. Urban areas are what’s desirable, so there’s a surplus of suburban housing development. Instead, development is being focused on cities to serve a growing demand for these types of developments,” Sych says. “The market has changed. Realtors I talk to tell me the demand for large lot development has really shrunk. Younger people just aren’t interested in those types of homes.”

By taking the time to stop and think about the future of the county and the region, the local governments and residents of northwest Michigan are ensuring a better future for all the region’s residents. Their efforts are a great example of the ways in which places can preserve their area’s character and natural appeal while developing in a way that complements the assets they already have.

Not wholly urban and not wholly rural, Grand Traverse County demonstrates how smart growth and wise planning can create solutions and strategies that everyone, regardless of where they live, can get on board with.