Traverse City Record-Eagle

Business

May 30, 2010

Bill O'Brien: TC should chart own course

A good friend recently lamented the gradual but growing influence of the Grand Rapids area over northwest Michigan as it heads north like a fast-moving glacier.

He's got a point. Areas ranging from health care to politics to a variety of business interests in the Traverse City area seem to have an increasing connection to the southwest part of the state. Movers and shakers from the Grand Rapids area are featured in local "policy conferences" to create more political and business clout for "West Michigan" with our decision-makers in Lansing and Washington. There's strength in numbers, right?

But is it really a good idea for Traverse City to hook its wagon to a region that, in several ways, is diametrically different to the lifestyle that so many treasure here up north? Grand Rapids' conservative political and social views may fit like a glove with some outposts of northern Michigan, but they certainly don't mesh with others, most notably Traverse City itself. The city is a progressive, somewhat liberal community that's not dominated by Republican politics and certainly doesn't wear its religion on its sleeve.

While that doesn't always set well with some of our local power-brokers, the city has served itself well by rejecting the sprawl growth that's been embraced by much of west Michigan. Traverse City favors creating a unique community that's become one of Michigan's top drawing cards. If Traverse City was just a northern Michigan hick town, one can bet the influential GR types wouldn't be up here trying to create more "alliances" in the area.

Just a couple of years ago, northern Michigan experienced firsthand how business and politics sometimes work in Grand Rapids. Look no further than Acme Township, where Grand Rapids-based Meijer illegally tried to hijack two local elections in pursuit of a big-box store plopped next to a northern Michigan highway. It was a classic display of bull-in-a-china-shop political muscle, and likely not an anomaly of how things get done in Meijer's hometown.

But in Grand Rapids, Meijer is widely viewed — and portrayed in the media — as some sort of benevolent, super-sized mom and pop store. The vast chasm between perception and reality in the sorry episode played out in Acme should be more than enough to make northern Michigan residents wary of embracing the mores of Grand Rapids.

There may be good reasons for northern Michigan to link up with the southwest part of the state on regional needs like health care. But it's a mistake to look at "West Michigan" as a monolithic bloc that can speak with one voice on social, political and business issues, or to think northern Michigan's priorities wouldn't take a backseat to the red-state views of southwest Michigan.

My friend moved to Traverse City a long time ago because he wanted to live somewhere where the big "R"s - religion and Republicans - didn't dominate the political and social landscape.

Let's hope he won't have to move again.

Bill O'Brien is the Record-Eagle's business editor. Contact him at bobrien@record-eagle.com or 933-1477.

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