TRAVERSE CITY — Bryan Crough loved to listen to people talk about downtown Traverse City and how it has become a hot spot for the arts, dining and commerce.
“He would smile and say, ‘It’s almost like someone had a plan,’” said Steve Constantin, chairman of the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority’s board of directors.
Crough was humbly referring to himself: a man who, as longtime director of the DDA, oversaw the city’s transformation from fading downtown to a shopping district filled with vibrancy and excitement.
Crough, 59, died Sunday night of an apparent heart attack. His passing prompted both accolades and recognition of Crough’s ability to plan out the downtown’s turnaround from a shopping district that had, at one point, fallen on hard times.
“When you look at the vision he had, he saw a booming downtown when no one else saw it,” said Mayor Michael Estes. “Bryan could see where he wanted to go, and embarked on that path.”
Filmmaker Michael Moore said there would be no State Theatre without Crough. Moore paid tribute to Crough’s life with a special message on the theatre’s marquee Monday.
“Bryan Crough: When we look down this street, we will always see you,” read the marquee.
“He was essentially the steward of this building, that he knew would someday come back to life,” Moore said. “He didn’t know how or why, but he believed the State Theatre would rise again.”
Moore said he met Crough when he and other planners for the Traverse City Film Festival were still looking for a host theatre. He said he walked out of a lunch onto Front Street, saw the shuddered State Theatre and wondered aloud if anyone had a key. That person turned out to be Crough, who was initially reluctant to let people inside for insurance reasons.
“He was sounding like an assistant principal in high school, and then said, ‘Aw, the heck with it,’” he said. “And he came with the key.”
Crough eventually helped the Rotary Club give the keys to the theatre to the Traverse City Film Festival. Moore said he was recently working with Crough daily on the project to turn the old Con Foster Museum into another movie theater. News of Crough’s death hit him in a “profound and sad way.”
Crough was originally from Salina, Kan. He moved to Traverse City in 1980. He quickly became involved in the local arts scene as executive director of the Old Town Playhouse. Current Executive Director Phil Murphy credits Crough with revitalizing the theater and making it inviting to the public.
“Bryan brought us out of the dark ages,” Murphy said.
Murphy said it was clear Crough had a strong interest in local politics even as Crough labored on the arts, advancing the local cultural scene through his work with the Playhouse, City Opera House and the now-defunct Traverse Area Arts Council. Crough served on the city commission from 1985 through 1990, including one year as mayor. He left the city commission in 1990 when the DDA board hired him as their executive director.
The downtown district was struggling at the time with a high vacancy rate and competition from the new Grand Traverse Mall, said attorney Chuck Judson, who served on the DDA board that hired Crough.
“We needed someone who could serve as a catalyst for the downtown,” Judson said. “We felt we had three to four years before we ran out of money. It was a very critical time for us ... and he had a vision for what could happen.”
Crough soon folded the Downtown Traverse City Association and the city’s parking system into the DDA, stabilizing finances and coordinating promotional efforts. The current downtown is the best testament to his legacy, Judson said.
“He was the kind of person who would make people and programs fit together to get things done,” Judson said. “He was just so interconnected in the community.”
One of the first steps to revitalizing downtown was Horizon Books’ move 20 years ago to a larger Front Street storefront. Co-owner Amy Reynolds said Crough helped arrange a street closure as volunteers and workers with hand trucks moved books across the street.
“He’s going to be difficult to replace,” she said. “He deserves so much credit and reflection on what he was able to contribute to Traverse City.”
DDA Deputy Director Rob Bacigalupi said Crough would be uncomfortable being characterized as the man who saved downtown Traverse City.
“I think he would reject (that) it was just him,” he said. “But someone said he was the glue that held it all together.”
Bacigalupi will serve as acting DDA director while its board searches for a replacement.
Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce Director Doug Luciani said Crough worked to shepherd the Midtown development, the downtown parking decks, Radio Centre and the long-awaited Indigo hotel project to fruition.
“Each project needed a Bryan Crough to work with various sides of the issue to come up with a plan everybody could get excited about,” he said.
Crough always did what he thought was best for the downtown, Judson said, and doing so sometimes put him at odds with some community members or the city commission.
“He respected the process tremendously, and if the community or the city commission said ‘no,’ he would accept it and move on,” Judson said. “Bryan had great confidence we would make the right decision.”
City Commissioner Jim Carruthers battled openly with Crough on many issues, but said the two were just as often allied together.
“It’s very tragic that Bryan Crough is gone,” Carruthers said. “He’s made himself the face of downtown.”
Carruthers said Crough had a lot of political clout in the city. He was adept at maneuvering on issues to move things forward.
“We fought hard on many issues,” Carruthers said. “But he was very approachable...and he had a lighthearted way of getting his point across with both seriousness and humor.”
Jeanette Mason, former Old Town Playhouse director, said besides being a valuable asset to the community, Crough was a “loyal, loving supportive friend.” She remembers he used to host parties for the Playhouse when he lived on Cass Street. Crough would leave the guests in stitches with laughter.
“Bryan, oh my, was a storytelling extraordinaire,” she said.
Mason said Crough was very close to his adoptive parents and regularly traveled back to Kansas while they were still alive.
“He was of the ilk that these were his parents and he had no desire whatsoever to track down his birth parents,” she said. “He seemed to be in harmony with them.”
Luciani said Crough often talked of growing up in Salina, off I-70. He helped his sister’s children get through college. Luciani said the public will remember Crough’s service to the community, but his friends will remember his generosity.
“By help I mean money, free counsel, a shoulder to cry on and a place to live when they needed it,” he said.
Scott Hardy, a former city commissioner, said Crough was involved in numerous community organizations such as the Traverse City Rotary Club, the Traverse City Film Festival and the Women’s Resource Center.
Crough is survived by his partner and friend Todd McMillen and family in Kansas and California. A memorial service will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. in the City Opera House. Reynolds-Jonkhoff Funeral Home is handling arrangements.