For the record, those who question how much tourism is too much tourism are not anti-American; retirees have the right to speak; not embracing every “festival” that comes along does not make someone anti-tourism or anti-anything.
Conversely, luring visitors here is a key part of the region’s economy; tourism promoters are often not the same people who create festivals and events; and for most of them, this is business.
None of that is likely to make a difference to the die-hards on both sides of this issue, but being civil is a must.
Our tourism debate is not new, but the temperature has risen over “festival fatigue,” a malady suffered mostly by city residents who say the city - and the Open Space - are home to too many festivals. The issue was further fueled by comments from Bad Van Dommelen, president and CEO of Traverse City Tourism (formerly the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau).
In an October Record-Eagle interview, Van Dommelen rightly warned against linking tourism with festivals, many of which are essentially local events,
“I think we have to be very careful about our discussion in that area,” he said. “I understand the issue but we have to be very, very careful we don’t swing the pendulum too far in the other direction or have a knee-jerk reaction ... a lot of the festivals ... are local events. We can’t throw tourism under the bus in the discussion about events and festivals.”
But Van Dommelen took a very different stance - and tone - when the festival fatigue issue hit the city commission in December. Commissioner Barbara Budros said tourism drains city infrastructure from trash pickup to wear and tear on city streets, parks, and other services.
“Tourists come here and put money into the area’s businesses; they don’t put any money into the city’s general fund,” she said.
Van Dommelen called her comments “irresponsible” and said visitors spend $1.2 billion in the area and create 12,000 jobs. Without tourism, he said, the city’s downtown would be “boarded up.”
He also claimed placing any limits on festivals was an assault on tourism. He said he opposed limits on the number of festivals, higher festival fees or any city policy that deters “economic activity” - namely, tourism.
He also described festival critics as a minority of mostly retired teachers and auto workers who live on pensions and don’t have to worry about making a living. That’s not keeping it civil.
Lashing out at festival critics flies in the face of Traverse City Tourism’s own numbers. A survey commissioned by the agency showed just 5 percent or so of visitors said they came here because of local festivals; about a third said they participated in an event if one was being held while they were here, but the events themselves were not a major draw.
While tourism is the 500-pound gorilla in the region’s economy, claims - including Van Dommelen’s assertions - that any restrictions on city events is a blow to tourism are a stretch, at best.
That hardly settles the debate, but it does help narrow it to what counts - what locals think about use of the Open Space and events in general. The city has already decided to limit major events to four per summer, has raised Open Space user fees for high-impact events, has said a Parks and Recreation committee will review any new festival requests and has tasked city staff to more carefully monitor events and react to complaints.
We need more. The city must focus on carefully managing festivals and events to protect the interests of residents and those putting their time and money on the line and prevent conflicts that threaten to disrupt the delicate balance between how much is enough and how much is too much.
Talk of creating a festival “czar” position - perhaps in jest - may not be far off the mark. The city needs to have people and a clear process in place to deal with problems as they happen, not days later. It must know precisely how much it costs to provide police and emergency services. The festival review committee can’t become a rubber stamp for new ideas.
And the conversation must continue; a key to managing events means quickly making changes as needed. The decision to allow the National Cherry Festival to run nine days this year will eventually hit the city commission, but has already gotten ad hoc permission; residents will want more of a say than that.
There’s a link between tourism and festivals, but “festival fatigue” is a separate issue the city can deal with only through smart, proactive management.