A public place to gather in Traverse City

Traverse City boasts many public amenities: a marina, lakeside and neighborhood parks, recreational facilities (including a ski area), walkways and playgrounds. 

But the city has lacked one important amenity: a public square.

That is until now. The Downtown Development Authority recently unveiled Rotary Square, an open and grassy area that will be used for community gatherings and events, the possibilities ranging from live music performances to festivals to markets. 

The park-like square is located at the intersection of Union and State streets, a block away from the Front Street shopping district and across from the post office. 

City officials will be looking for proposals to develop Rotary Square.
The site of a former drive-through bank, the downtown plaza will be developed to make it conducive for gatherings and passive use (a place for residents and visitors to simply sit and relax). The Traverse City Downtown Development Authority plans to send out Requests for Proposals this summer and fall. The site was purchased by the DDA, thanks to a $2 million grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. 

“It’s a civic square providing more opportunities for gatherings, for celebrations, for connections,” says Jean Derenzy, CEO of the DDA. “We, as the DDA, have been looking to have a space to have these activities – that are otherwise not available to us unless we are closing a street for certain activities. We are looking forward to having experiences at the square.”

The project is made possible by a $1 million grant from Rotary Charities of Traverse City, made to the DDA in 2020 to mark the Rotary Club of Traverse City’s 100th anniversary and its rich history of service to the community. 

Rotary Charities’ investment in Rotary Square is an example of its commitment to creating vibrant and accessible public spaces, says Sakura Takana, CEO of Rotary Charities of Traverse City. Rotary Charities, established as a steward of resources from oil and natural gas reserves found on property owned by the Traverse City Rotary Club, has awarded more than $65 million in grants to nonprofits, municipalities, networks and tribal nations in Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Leelanau counties, since 1976. 

“The idea of rural placemaking is something our organization has been heavily invested in,” Takano says, noting Rotary Charities has supported placemaking projects in Suttons Bay, Frankfort, Benzie and Kalkaska. “We believe a vibrant downtown is essential to maintaining a healthy population base and maintaining and bringing talent to a region.”

“I love the shops and the restaurants in downtown Traverse City, but I’d love to see more community programming,” Takano says “There has not been a space for community programming.  The square will help increase the diversity of what people can do downtown.”

Great cities, Derenzy points out, all have public squares for community gatherings. The square will not only help connect the community but also connect other businesses with Front Street and connect other sections of downtown. Downtown Traverse City, she notes, extends well beyond Front Street to include Garland, Hall, Union and Cass streets and the entire 1.6 miles of the Lower Boardman/Ottaway River.

“This corner really is a phenomenal corner in connecting our downtown districts,” she says. 

Civic planners have long touted the benefits of a community square or plaza. Those benefits include providing economic support to local businesses, attracting new businesses, encouraging tourism, providing cultural opportunities and connecting communities and neighborhoods. 

“A healthy thriving downtown takes all people and all kinds of organizations to really connect and embrace what the vision is for a downtown,” Derenzy says. 

The Rotary Club and Rotary Charities have a long history with Traverse City and other communities in the region. 

“As a longtime supporter of downtown Traverse City, we are pleased to see that the space is being utilized in a way that contributes to the vibrancy of downtown and provides a gathering place for the community to come together,” Takano says.

In addition to sending out RFPs later this year, the DDA also plans to host community meetings to discuss possibilities, much like the city did in pursuing a unified plan for the Boardman/Ottaway downtown riverfront.

“The DDA did a good job with community engagement,” Takano says. “There were open houses and public forums. People could comment online or in person. They did a wonderful job of listening to the voices of people who are going to use that space. They were heard during the process. That’s important.”

While the DDA pursues proposals for Rotary Square, the public space will begin offering events this summer, including performances by the Traverse City Symphony Orchestra.

“It’s going to be up and running this summer,” Derenzy says. “We’re looking at movies in the park in August. We are looking at a possible winter market. We are looking at activating that space now … We just don’t have a finalized vision for it.

We first had to get the property before envisioning the possibilities,” she adds.

Envisioned are cultural activities, such as plays and concerts, as well pop-up events and maker space opportunities. 

Says Takano, “We’re surrounded by so much outdoor beauty in Traverse City. To have this open green space in the city is amazing. It will hopefully end up looking like a space where people can sit and relax and listen to music and spend time outside, whether it’s winter or summer … and without an agenda.” 

Jason M. Karel is a freelance writer based in northern Michigan. 
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