David Mengebier


TRAVERSE CITY — There are lots of organizations doing good work in the Traverse City region, though it may be a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

The Community Development Strategy and Coalition being rolled out by the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation aims to correct that by bringing together area organizations to tackle some of the long-term issues that get in the way, said David Mengebier, president and CEO of the foundation.

The most urgent of those have been identified as the high cost of housing and transportation, a drop in the number of working families in the region and children who are not ready for kindergarten. Several goals that fall into three categories — economic development, societal and environmental — have been named, such as increasing the average wage, creating affordable housing, attracting more science- and technology-based companies to the region and reducing energy consumption.

The foundation has been working on the project for about a year and the coalition is so far comprised of about 30 businesses, governmental units and nonprofit and philanthropic organizations who will work together by sharing information, aligning resources and accessing funding from outside of the area, Mengebier said.

The 10-year project will measure its progress with a scorecard that identifies targets to hit by 2030 and will use data, studies and community outreach to track success.

The Grand Traverse Foundation serves Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Leelanau counties, a region that has below average wages and above average housing costs.

“That combination just doesn’t work for a lot of people,” Mengebier said. “Many people are spending way more on housing and transportation than they can afford. As the population increases, as we seek to grow in sustainable ways, we have to be working on these measures to have a healthy economy.”

Mengebier spent 17 years at Consumers Energy where he was a senior vice president and also president of the Consumers Energy Foundation.

“Looking back at other regional community development efforts here and around the state and country it’s easy to put together a coalition,” Mengebier said. “What’s harder is actually moving the needle on these kinds of societal, economic, environmental and development issues.”

When Mengebier came to the Traverse City area he said he did not see a lot of coordination or sharing of information among the various entities. There are lots of silos, or what he calls “islands of excellence.”

But he has also seen good examples of coordinated strategies, such as moving industrial plants off the water, creating green spaces and removing dams from the Boardman River, he said.

What’s needed, Mengebier said, is a strong backbone organization, like the foundation, and a strong implementation strategy that moves the area closer to its goals.

Traverse Connect has been involved in the project from the beginning, said CEO Warren Call.

“I see a lot of value in the community speaking together with one voice,” Call said. “It’s a shared strategy across the region.”

Advocating for public policy and legislation at the state level in the area of child care is an example of what the organization does, as its member businesses need quality and affordable child care for their employees, Call said. A broader coalition of businesses working together on shared priorities gives them more of a voice, he said.

“It gives us more weight,” he said.

The region has a vibrant arts culture, quality water resources and natural places that need to be supported, Mengebier said.

Christine Crissman is executive director of The Watershed Center, which works to protect and preserve the Grand Traverse Bay watershed. The organization is a member of the coalition.

“Our environmental groups are really good at working together and accomplishing things,” Crissman said. “What we lack in our ability is connecting with other organizations in the economic and societal sectors.”

Part of that is looking at things from a different perspective, educating the community and helping people see how much a healthy environment is connected to economic development.

“It will help us gather more information and data to fuel some of our efforts,” Crissman said.

The Community Development Strategy and Coalition can be viewed at www.nwmicommunitydevelopment.org. The website details the project and gives people and organizations the opportunity to get involved.

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