Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 8, 2009

After looking back, we look to the future


TRAVERSE CITY -- The name Milliken paves a long road through the life of Traverse City.

Town fathers Perry Hannah and A. Tracy Lay, who transformed a lumbering outpost into a prosperous city from 1851 to 1900, certainly left enduring marks on the city.

And so have James W. Milliken, James T. Milliken and William G. Milliken.

This father, son and grandson -- through progressive leadership, stewardship and strong reputations for integrity -- provide a lasting legacy and strong link between the city's pioneer past, present and possibly its future.

All three were city business leaders and state senators. Bill Milliken, now 87, was the state's longest-serving governor, a tenure that stretched from 1969 to 1983, an intense time in American and state politics.

His leadership spanned the civil rights and Vietnam eras, environmental disaster on the Great Lakes, federal recognition of Indian treaty fishing rights, the move toward community mental health programs and recession.

Bill Milliken's environmental leadership gave Michigan one of the strongest state environmental protection acts in the nation, a bottle deposit bill, the Wetlands Protection Act, truth-in-pollution laws, the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund and a hazardous waste act.

Since leaving office, his advocacy and call for a Great Lakes consciousness "helped shape the issue for years to come," environmental historian Dave Dempsey wrote in his 2006 biography: "William G. Milliken: Michigan's Passionate Moderate."

In this last installment of the Record-Eagle's year-long 150th Anniversary History Project series, native son Milliken pondered the future, including the question: What will the Traverse City area be like in 2159?

The same question was posed to four other area leaders -- George McManus, Marsha Smith, Derek Bailey and Joe VanderMeulen (see links in sidebar).

When Bill Milliken looks at Traverse City today, he sees how far it has come.

He remembers swimming in the Boardman River as a kid through a "horrible" slick of gasoline and oil because pipes from a gas station and other businesses drained directly into the river. He'd have to go home and scrub it off.

He recalls returning to Traverse City after serving as a pilot in World War II and seeing a sign on a huge boulder at the entrance of the Traverse City Country Club. It said: "Gentiles only."

"Traverse City wasn't always the most enlightened place," he said.

He remembers his father's two-decade effort to gain city voter approval of a sewage treatment plant bond to keep sewage in the Boardman from draining into West Bay and washing up on city beaches. His father was known as "Gentleman Jim" during his 1940-1949 stint in the state Legislature, but he had another nickname in Traverse City for his sewer bond campaign. Milliken chuckled as he told the story, but wouldn't divulge details.

"It's not a polite term," he said.

Traverse City today is "remarkable," Milliken said. It has come a long way in the days of his grandfather, father and his boyhood. It's more cosmopolitan.

"The things we have here are so unusual for a city this size," he said.

He mentioned the Traverse City Symphony, Old Town Playhouse, Munson Medical Center, International Forum lectures and Northwestern Michigan College, which started in 1951 with 90 students in an old Coast Guard building at the old city airport.

Milliken was one of the first nine NMC board members who created that institution, which today annually serves 4,500 students.

"And, of course, one of the great things we have is the beauty of the area, the physical surroundings of the lakes and bays and steams," he said.

He also has concerns, including:

-- Continued environmental protection, not only of resources but citizens' rights to sue polluters and government;

-- Extreme partisanship coupled with mean, negative, divisive debate that sours people on government and threatens to destroy government's ability to respond to critical needs;

-- The power of lobbyists to influence legislation, visible recently in the national debate over President Barack Obama's health care plan;

-- Strip malls, lack of affordable housing and traffic patterns that, unchecked, will destroy the region's natural beauty;

-- Continued protection of the Great Lakes water and area waterways, as well as land and air;

"Our big challenge in the future will be to protect what we have," he said. "How we protect our land is one of the keys to a bright and happy future in our area."

Milliken sees a need for a regional "grand vision" for land use and supports recent community attempts by the Michigan Land Use Institute and others to develop one. His wife, Helen, who has environmental achievements of her own, is a board member emeritus of that nonprofit environmental organization.

Milliken also sees a need for better government, not less. He sees government as an instrument to do good, not something to eliminate or scorn.

"We need to recognize that government is there to serve all of us," he said. "It serves a very constructive and positive role in the lives of people. That's what it's designed for. We'll be able to deal with our problems to the extent that people understand what government was constituted for and why it must have our support, not our scorn."

Milliken is optimistic about the region's future.

"We are beginning now to appreciate what we have," he said. "I see a growing and flourishing community economically. I see a community that recognizes the enormous advantages we have. We are building on it by protecting our water and air and learning to control what we have not yet learned to control."