Downtown Traverse City has come a long way since the Traverse City Film Festival refurbished and reopened the historic State Theatre in 2007.
By attracting more than 1 million movie-goers downtown since then the theater has been the catalyst for the surge of business activity that has seen new restaurants, new shops and new buildings, plus a lot more business for existing stores, later hours and a sense that there’s something going on. There’s a nightlife and bustle that wasn’t there before.
The film festival has now unveiled Bijou by the Bay, the transformation of the old Con Foster Museum building in Clinch Park into a 150-seat movie house that will offer first-run films and a second downtown-area screen, the first time in about a century the city will have two operating theaters inside the city limits.
And while the Bljou may not have the kind of impact on downtown that the State has had, it is a significant addition to the local entertainment and business scene that will, like the State, bring thousands of people and untold dollars to downtown. It’s an ancient economic maxim that a rising tide floats all boats; getting the downtown tide to rise not once but twice is an amazing feat.
But the grand opening of the Bijou over the weekend is only the beginning of much work yet to be done. A lot of that is going to be up to the Film Festival. Festival co-founder Michael Moore has said the festival wants to upgrade the projector for the Bijou, create a vestibule so patrons can get in out of the elements, improve heating and eventually install 3-D capability.
But the less glamorous work of helping the Bijou succeed by maintaining year-round access, helping direct patrons to the right place and ensuring that it’s a safe experience for everyone is going to be up to the city and a seemingly reluctant city commission.
Commissioners have already given the Bijou and the Film Festival conflicting signals. After signing an agreement that covered much of the lease details under which the Bijou is operating some commissioners balked at the idea of painting the walkway to the Bijou to resemble a yellow brick road — even though it was spelled out in the agreement. Turns out some of them never read it.
That’s not acceptable. The city has signed an agreement and must live up to promises made.
The building is still owned by the city but the Film Festival has invested more than $1 million to fix the roof, the heating and electrical systems, put in new bathrooms and more. It’s the first significant work on the building since 1934 and has essentially extended its life and usefulness at zero cost to taxpayers.
All that work was done on the presumption that the Bijou would be able to operate like any other business. For that to happen, the city is going to have to do the same kinds of things it does for other downtown properties - like keeping the city parking lot that leads to the tunnel under Grandview Parkway plowed and keeping the tunnel itself clear of snow and ice and safe for pedestrians.
Storms that tore through the area last weekend reportedly left 16 inches of standing water in the tunnel, effectively leaving the Bijou stranded.
That problem must be addressed, as does the issue of keeping the tunnel clear in the winter. Moore said the festival is assuming it will be responsible for maintaining access from the tunnel to the Bijou, and is prepared to do so.
But the city must be responsible for keeping the parking lot and the tunnel entrance clear. That will be a challenge on some days, but it must be done.
The city must also consider working with the festival to improve signage on the city side of the tunnel to lead patrons to the Bijou; what’s there now doesn’t do the job.
The Bijou is almost certainly going to become a major asset to the city and help bring in business for many downtown merchants, just as the State has done. Getting people downtown to mingle and eat and drink and spend money and pump life into the place matters, and the State and the Bijou do that. It just makes sense for the city to help make the Bijou a success, and it is obligated to keep its promises.
Taxpayers—and downtown merchants — expect that as a minimum.