TRAVERSE CITY — A growing debate over the toll that more frequent festivals and increased tourism takes on Traverse City’s infrastructure has pushed noise and trash questions off the main stage.
Festival promoters and tourism officials oppose an increase in festival fees as arbitrary, and they question city officials’ statements that more tourists and festivals translates to increased burden on local government. They also maintain increased economic activity from tourism — what they contend is an estimated $1 billion-plus a year in direct spending — covers any additional cost the city may incur.
But city Commissioner Barbara Budros, perhaps the city’s most outspoken advocate for increased fees for festivals on city property, put it bluntly: tourism is a drain on the city’s 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. “I agree tourism is an economic driver here, but we have to be careful with balancing this so we are not ruining our city.”
Brad Van Dommelen, president and CEO for the local Visitors Bureau that recently renamed itself Traverse City Tourism, called Budros’ comments “irresponsible.” He 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.” Instead, the thriving business community generates property taxes to feed the city, he said.
Van Dommelen, who lives in Long Lake Township, said he’s against proposed limits on festivals, higher festival fees, or any city policy that deters economic activity. Festival critics, he charged, are a minority of mostly retired teachers and auto workers who live on pensions who don’t have to worry about making a living.
Budros maintains the fallacy of the economic argument is that it’s to the region’s benefit, but Traverse City taxpayers are expected to bear the burden of extra governmental costs.
“Everywhere I look I see that (Visitors Bureau) ad about how many people come here and how much they spend in the Grand Traverse region,” Budros said. “How about a little bit for TC?”
Van Dommelen counters that the city is at the heart of economic activity.
“I understand the pressures on the city, but they have to understand we are growing our economy here,” he said.
Andrew McFarlane, a former festival organizer turned web designer and marketer, said city officials overreacted with their decision to cap summer festivals at four. Festivals, he said, are a vital component of both the tourism economy and the city’s growing reputation as a culinary destination.
But McFarlane, who lives in the city, doesn’t oppose a reasonable festival fee increase. And he supports the city’s efforts to find other revenue sources to support city services amid the tourism boom.
“It’s not our job to carry the economy around,” he said.
As city officials began spinning the festival wheel hoping for a cash prize, the Visitors Bureau donned a bulls-eye with its “Tourism: Driving Traverse City’s Economy” ad campaign.
“They were basically touting themselves ... promoting themselves, not the area,” Mayor Michael Estes said of the ads. “If they are that flush with cash, then the city should be receiving some revenue.”
Van Dommelen responded that his agency wasn’t engaged in chest-thumping. Instead, advertisements were meant to promote tourism’s economic benefit to the community. Too many residents don’t appear to recognize tourism’s vital role in the economy, he said.
“I’ve never lived anywhere where it was so important for people to understand how important tourism is to our community,” Van Dommelen said. “Every other place already gets it.”
But former Mayor Chris Bzdok also took umbrage with the ad campaign. He outlined his concerns in a recent letter to city commissioners.
“Incidentally, the (Visitors Bureau) taking credit for generating $1.2 billion in economic activity is akin to if Ford Motor’s ad agency took credit for generating $126 billion in sales,” Bzdok wrote. “The people who produce the products and services generate most of the economic activity; the marketing people add a little to the top.”
Estes said the Visitors Bureau pays hefty salaries, has substantial cash reserves, advertises to promote itself and its leaders want their voices heard, but they refuse to lift a finger to assist the city’s general fund.
Van Dommelen, while recently lobbying Commissioner Jim Carruthers about the merits of festivals, also complained about the city not doing more to keep the downtown streets clean of leaves and debris.
“It is a little hypocritical,” Carruthers said. “They don’t pay any taxes.”
A Dec. 8 Record-Eagle story outlined the Visitors Bureau’s years-ago move to create an educational foundation that owns the Grandview Parkway and Union Street tourism office building and lease it back to the Visitor’s Bureau to avoid property taxes. The revelation surprised both Bzdok and T. Michael Jackson, a member of the city’s Downtown Development Authority. Both men encouraged city commissioners to review the exemption.
“The (Visitors Bureau) is not a charity,” Bzdok wrote. “It is a trade association that promotes the financial interest of hotel owners in the area.”
Central Neighborhood resident Karen Anderson said it wouldn’t hurt for people to go somewhere else besides the Open Space for their festivals. She’d like to see the city develop an alternative festival venue.
“I’m not against festivals but ... does everything have to happen at the Open Space,” she said.