Cherry Festival attendees enjoy a summer day in the Open Space park by Grand Traverse Bay in Traverse City. Some local residents say festivals occupy the park too much in summer, while others say it's a reasonable price to pay for a strong tourism economy. (Traverse City Tourism)
Traverse City— Lou Colombo insists he’s no Grinch and enjoys festivals. But so many were held along this Lake Michigan town’s grassy waterfront over the summer that he applied to City Hall to throw a bash of his own, called “The Quiet Festival.” The event lineup would consist of absolutely nothing.
Officials turned him down, but got the message — from Colombo and others. The City Commission is reconsidering its policy on using parks for festivals.
“We’re not trying to shut down tourism,” said Mayor Michael Estes. “But we’re trying to ask people who put on these events to be more courteous to our neighborhoods.”
The idea of “festival fatigue” anywhere in this struggling state drips with irony.
Well before the nationwide economic downturn, Michigan was a mess. Chained to the auto industry’s free-fall, it lost population as unemployment soared. Even Traverse City, which had no auto plants but depended on vacationers from hard-hit Detroit 250 miles to the southeast, felt the ripple effects.
Yet with conditions improving and tourism booming again, some locals — particularly retirees who chose the area for its beauty and small-town atmosphere — don’t want too much of a good thing.
“I’m kind of pleased when fall comes and things slow down a bit,” said Colombo, 75.
Others say keeping things quiet is the wrong priority in a place where college graduates and young families struggle to find well-paying jobs.
“The bottom line is that these festivals bring money into Traverse City, and we’re hardly in a position where we’re so rich that we can leave it on the table,” said Andrew McFarlane, founder of a wine and art festival and editor of an online guide to the area’s culinary culture.
The Great Lakes region is trying to shed its Rust Belt image by developing a “blue economy” based on its abundant fresh water. Tourism plays a big part in the strategy, which is churning out boardwalks, bike paths and festivals along the 3,126 miles of shoreline in Michigan alone.
Traverse City, population 15,000, has been a top destination. A local study found that tourism pumped $1.2 billion into the city economy last year, up 28 percent from 2006.
Nestled on Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, it has a lively downtown and a burgeoning arts scene. Nearby countryside is dotted with cherry orchards and forests. Wineries, microbreweries and farm-to-table restaurants draw raves from celebrity chef Mario Batali, who has a summer home in the area.
The weeklong National Cherry Festival has been around nearly a century. In the past decade, it’s gotten lots of company.
Filmmaker Michael Moore, a Flint native who has made Traverse City his adopted home, established film and comedy festivals. Other events have food, beer, wine and art themes. There’s an equestrian festival and a tall ships festival.
The most sought-after venue is the aptly named “Open Space,” an expanse along the bay front where people jog, toss Frisbees and take in the scenery. Diminished access to the treasured spot is a pet peeve of those with festival fatigue. Other complaints include noise, traffic snarls and trash.
For some, the last straw was a Christian rock festival over Labor Day weekend that could be heard 10 miles up the coast.
“We had our windows open and we could clearly hear what was being said onstage, never mind the music and thumping,” said Ross Richardson, a candidate for the city commission in next month’s election, who lives 1.5 miles from the site.
It’s made for lively debate in local media and social networking sites — to the discomfort of some in the business community who worry about giving visitors the impression they’re unwelcome.
Sam Porter, whose company promotes festivals, warned that putting more restrictions on entertainment could make it hard to draw top talent. “You tell a band they can’t play at a level that’s standard in the industry? It will not work.”
George Nemetz, manager of a downtown party store, wrote in the Traverse City Record-Eagle that he wished there were festivals every day.
“For us, it’s a necessity to make your money during the summer festival season because once winter comes around, the coffers are quite bare,” he said in an interview.
Colombo said he doesn’t want to shut the festivals down, just limit the time they occupy the Open Space.
“It’s a beautiful spot for people to go out and enjoy the bay,” he said.
Estes, the mayor, said he sees the silver lining even as he seeks a happy medium. “I’ve heard from a lot of communities that would love to have the problems that we have,” he said.