TRAVERSE CITY — Two city residents tired of snowy downtown sidewalks have had enough.
Ann Rogers and Grace Joppich asked the city commission to improve snow removal downtown. It’s an issue the two women have championed for 30 years with varying degrees of success, and they are hoping commissioners Gary Howe and Tim Werner will take up the banner.
“It seems like a petty thing but it’s not,” Rogers said. “There are more people with disabilities and some of us who are getting older who don’t like the slippery walks. This is important to them.”
The problem areas are the corners, some side streets, walks along parking lots, and merchants who don’t shovel their walks.
“Many of the merchants do an excellent job,” Rogers said. “Plamondon Shoes, they get out there when there are two snow flakes and clean it off.”
But it only takes one or two places along a street to create a barrier, she said.
“We have been working on this forever,” said Joppich, who contracted polio as a child and now uses a walker. Joppich said she served on a committee to address downtown accessibility back around 1980 and, while the city has made great progress, snow was an issue then and remains one today.
“If you use a wheelchair, or have a brace or other appliance ... one little thing can throw you,” she said.
Merchants and property owners are responsible for clearing the walks in front of and around their buildings, said Rob Bacigalupi, interim director of the Downtown Development Authority. The parking system also pays a contractor to clear the walks on all streets with parking meters after heavy snows, but that works only if “the stars align.”
The snow has to fall and pile up shortly after midnight so the contractor can come in and shovel the snow into the street, where it’s removed by city street crews before workers start to arrive downtown in the morning, Bacigalupi said.
But there are problem spots still and no one seems to take responsibility, especially at the crosswalks, he said. City staff discussed the issue briefly on Tuesday and will meet again to discuss possible solutions.
Commissioners Gary Howe and Tim Werner both campaigned on walkable communities. Howe, prompted by Rogers’ letter to the commission, briefly brought up the issue at Monday’s night commission meeting, reminding city residents and property owners it’s their responsibility to clear the walks in front of their properties.
Howe also sent an email to City Manager Jered Ottenwess, offering to dig out some suggestions he’d made previously that the city never acted upon. He closed his note by writing: “Unfortunately, this late in the season, not many changes can be expected.”
Rogers called Howe’s words “unacceptable.”
“It’s the beginning of the season,” Rogers said. “He’s on the commission now. He has some power to do something.
“They certainly have talked about the walkability issue and I hope they do get on it,” she said. “Talk is one thing, now prove it.”
Howe said he’s been fighting this issue for the last five years, and he shares Rogers frustration. But, he’s only been on the commission less than a month.
“Downtown is the frustrating one,” Howe said. “You have businesses where they are actually trying to get (people) down there to shop.”
City ordinance puts the onus of snow removal on property owners but has no enforcement mechanism. Howe said the city needs a stronger ordinance and recommends one modeled on the city of Saline. It fines people $25 for a a first offense and $50 for a second offense. Residents have 24 hours to remove the snow after a storm but, in the business district, it’s every four hours during a storm.
“But I don’t think this is something we can fix tomorrow,” Howe said. “Some of this is cultural. We have to make it a priority. We have to communicate.”