Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 30, 2012

Our view: 09/30/2012


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---- — If you live in Traverse City or Petoskey, imagine that your main downtown drag is a four-lane state highway that sees 19,000 vehicles a day pass through, many of them 18-wheelers heading elsewhere in northern Lower Michigan.

That's Kalkaska.

Try to wrap your head around the challenge of building a viable downtown on a strip where one side of the street is made up of mostly empty buildings, a parking lot and a lumber yard, and across the way — four lanes away, with a speed limit of 35 mph in spots (set by the state) — is a long block of historic buildings and storefronts, many of which are in need of rehabilitation.

Most northern Michigan residents have likely passed through Kalkaska, one of the main crossroads of the north at the intersection of M-72 and U.S. 131. If anything stands out, it's probably the leaping fiberglass trout that sits along U.S. 131, the signature symbol of the village's annual Trout Festival.

But a handful of people are determined to turn things around there, including village manager Penny Hill, who envisions a downtown shopping district along 131 — known locally as Cedar Street — with a large public space for picnics, a farmers market, and concerts. The group also hopes that someday visitors and locals could take in a movie, grab a beer at a brew pub, stroll in and out of boutique shops and check out the trout statute.

That's some visioning. But Hill and others are pushing a long-term revitalization strategy that includes a brownfield redevelopment plan, a storefront corridor remake, and a comprehensive strategy to recruit investors and developers. They're plenty serious.

"We can make this happen," Hill said recently. "Everyone has been waiting for someone to take the next step. Well, we're taking that next step."

This isn't the first time Kalkaska has tried to remodel itself. Years ago a similar effort revolved around refurbishing an old hotel along Cedar. The village has seen lots of ups and downs, booms and busts over the years, from logging to oil and gas.

Hill, Village President Jeff Sieting, businessman Mark Avery and others have adopted a long-term strategy that includes a master plan and what they call the Main Street Renaissance 300 Block Development project, which calls for a mixed-use development to remake the entire block.

Store owner Duane Bills said downtown business owners need to work together to beautify storefronts on Cedar and offer more consistent hours. He'd like to see retailers like Izod or Talbots open nearby.

"We have to do something to get more high-end customers to stop," he said.

Doug Luciani, chief executive officer of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, says Kalkaska has highway, rail, warehouse and water treatment infrastructure that would be the envy of economic development officials in other communities.

Infrastructure, brownfield funds, master plans and more won't mean a thing without a community-wide determination to change. Hill and others know that a refurbished downtown would bring jobs, and they know jobs will bring a tide of prosperity that can float a lot of boats.

"One of our biggest weaknesses is self perception," Hill said. "We need to do a better job of marketing ourselves."

And believing in the dream.