Among the reasons Traverse City officials trumpet their vibrant downtown might be their anemic economic development efforts elsewhere. An obvious example is the busy corner of West Front and Division streets. It rotted like a piece of discarded fruit over the past two decades while city staff beat the bushes for downtown tenants.
Some still remember when the corner carried the signs of Shell, Total, Union 76 and Amoco service stations. But most have more-recent memories of vacant buildings and empty surface lots, with the ground below contaminated by buried gasoline tanks. Reviving such a degraded site is a significant challenge even in the best economic times — more than the city apparently could tackle.
But slow and steady wins the race, and that's been the approach of Grand Traverse County's brownfield redevelopment office. One of the gas stations survived over the years, a downstate bank moved in at the southeast corner and a group of local doctors built a medical office at another. The county kept at it, and a CVS drug store will complete the corner's painfully slow revival.
The new pharmacy isn't everyone's first choice. National chains rub some people the wrong way, and others contend it eliminates any significant traffic control measures at the busy intersection. Those are valid concerns. But does it make sense to ignore a dilapidated corner in case the state and city might, someday, do some meaningful work there? An iffy proposition given the city's track record.
Reviving abandoned, contaminated commercial properties requires maneuvering a maze of state and local regulations and loads of up-front money — the medical office can attest to that. It's not for the faint of heart nor light of wallet. It would be next to impossible for a local mom-and-pop shop or restaurant to build there, and the payback would take years.
Tax revenue generated by the new developments also will help pay for ongoing clean-up of the soil and groundwater contamination that's plagued the corner for years. Purging a groundwater plume near Kids Creek seems at least as important as building streetscapes or burying utility lines, luxuries for which the downtown siphoned local tax dollars for years.
It's almost embarrassing that another local government had to work so hard to revive a signature city intersection, though in the end city officials successfully negotiated with a tenant for the last corner.
But make no mistake — the county's done all the heavy lifting at West Front and Division. For that the community can be thankful.