Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — When Bryan Crough became executive director of Traverse City’s Downtown Development Authority in 1990, downtown wasn’t the place it is today - or the place to be.
The JC Penney department store had moved out, the former State Theatre building was shut down, the city Opera House was the worse for wear, there were no parking decks but there were lots of vacant storefronts, including a former Firestone tire store at Front and Park streets. The Grand Traverse Mall - which many predicted would be the death of downtown - had recently opened.
The change since then has been nothing short of remarkable. And a lot of people credit Crough, who died June 16 of an apparent heart attack, for that transformation.
Although Crough sometimes came in for criticism from elected officials and some in the business community for doing things his way, there is simply no denying his devotion to the city and the downtown. Or his ability to get things done - usually the way he wanted them done.
“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 and Traverse City Film Festival co-founder Michael Moore, the catalyst behind the rebirth of the State, said flatly it wouldn’t have happened without Crough.
Moore paid tribute to Crough’s life with a special message on the theatre’s marquee: “Bryan Crough: When we look down this street, we will always see you.”
Moore was not alone in his praise.
Attorney Chuck Judson, who served on the DDA board that hired Crough, said the DDA was looking for someone who “could serve as a catalyst for the downtown ...”
“We felt we had three to four years before we ran out of money,” Judson said. “It was a very critical time for us ... and he had a vision for what could happen.”
Crough merged the Downtown Traverse City Association and the city’s parking system into the DDA, which allowed him to stabilize financing and coordinate promotional efforts.
“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.”
Crough, who was from Salina, Kan., moved to Traverse City in 1980 and was later hired as executive director of the Old Town Playhouse. Current Executive Director Phil Murphy said Crough revitalized the theater and made it inviting to the public.
“Bryan brought us out of the dark ages,” Murphy said.
Crough worked with the Playhouse, the Opera House and the now-defunct Traverse Area Arts Council and got involved in local politics. He was on the city commission from 1985 through 1990, including one year as mayor.
It wasn’t all roses. Crough came in for a lot of criticism for his relationship with Federated Properties in 2005 and beyond. He heavily advocated for three Federated projects, including a four-story hotel on city-owned property at Union Street and Grandview Parkway, a three-story development at the site of the former Grand Traverse Auto dealership and an eight-story residential and retail development to be built on top of a multi-million dollar public parking deck at 145 W. Front.
In 2006, voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to sell up to $16 million in bonds to pay for the parking deck and infrastructure improvements. All three projects fell apart.
Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce Director Doug Luciani, however, credited Crough for shepherding more recent projects - the Midtown development, the downtown parking decks, Radio Centre and the long-awaited Indigo hotel project, which is now under construction - to fruition.
Judson and others said Crough always did what he thought was best for the downtown, and that sometimes put him at odds with some community members or the city commission.
But “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.”
Crough was also recalled by many for his self-deprecating humor, his wit and for being a “loyal, loving supportive friend.”
“Bryan, oh my, was a storytelling extraordinaire,” said Jeanette Mason, former Old Town Playhouse director.
Whatever one’s views of how Crough conducted business, there is simply no doubt he did more for downtown than anyone in memory, recent or otherwise. His legacy is all around us.