Photo by Gary Howe
On this Thanksgiving day, we take time to give special thanks to our 2018 Milliken Award recipient Kim Pontius for the insight and leadership he has shown in helping preserve what we love about northern Michigan while also allowing the region to grow. Striking that balance is extremely tricky, and Pontius’s views, intellect and energy have been so important as we’ve all worked to keep that balance.
When Groundwork selected Kim Pontius to receive the 2018 Milliken Leadership Award, we chose an individual who has used his position as CEO of the Traverse Area Association of Realtors (TAAR) to help chart a future of wise, sensitive and authentic growth for this precious northwest region of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. It’s probably safe to say that people don’t typically think of heads of Realtor associations as visionaries for smart growth, but Kim Pontius is one. He displayed remarkable insight and convener skills in helping direct the Grand Vision, a community-based visioning process with a 50-year planning horizon that focused on the Grand Traverse Bay region. The visioning part of the Grand Vision was completed in 2010, but in following years the study moved out of the limelight, at one point even disappearing from the Internet. We took the occasion of Pontius’s Milliken Leadership Award to re-visit the Grand Vision and hear what Pontius thinks of it now that he’s had eight years to assess its impact.
First, tell us about your history with smart growth strategies.
Actually, prior to my job at TAAR I did not have a lot of history with smart growth. My wife and I lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which is a conservative city, and you did not see smart growth or new urbanist ideas happening there. Plus, I worked in a factory, in manufacturing facilities, and I rarely got out of the shop. But then my wife and I came to Traverse City on a vacation and it really opened my eyes to new urbanism. I really started to pay attention to it, and these concepts really resonated with me.
But your job at TAAR came later …
Yes, much later. We visited here for 20 years. When I interviewed for the job, we already had a spice blending company based in Fort Wayne, and one of the interviewers asked me why we’d move our business from a market of 300,000 to a market of 30,000, and I said, “There’s a lot of juice here. It’s electrifying.” The mix of arts and the creative class and the water and landscape, not to mention all of the things that were going on downtown, really inspire me, certainly made me want to be a part of it.
Was there any one big thing that really stood out in Traverse City that caught your imagination, that really seemed to express these values?
It was more incrementally, admiring many things people were doing, not one big thing. But, for example, I remember the coal power plant on the waterfront, and then we came here one year and it wasn’t there. And that was very intriguing for me, that a community would live out its values like that.
In a nutshell, what was it about the Grand Vision process that drew you in?
It got me excited about potential. What could we become if we wanted to become something amazing?
So many of the ideas during those discussions started out with, “Wouldn’t it be great if …” People talked about more bike trails, more walkability, more inspiration in our downtowns and village centers. Build development that eliminated sprawl and not develop greenfield areas. Have a ferry service on the bay and reestablish passenger rail from southeast Michigan.
But it seemed the Grand Vision disappeared.
Well, for one, Grand Vision was beginning to happen in an organic way. There was no one group pushing the agenda, but over a period of four or five years, people started to think differently about growth, planning and zoning, and new ideas surfaced. We saw more placemaking, more waterfront parks, more thought given to transportation systems.
But, yes, the Grand Vision plan itself did disappear. It was removed from the Internet because people stopped paying the hosting fee and when you clicked on a link to it you got a 404 [missing file] message. The plan was left out there to die. What a shame. It was a 50-year plan and it’s gone. But a gentleman I hired, Connor Miller, tracked down the files. They were still on a server, but just not live on the Internet. So we agreed to host them at TAAR.
What are some other things you see here that you attribute to Grand Vision thinking?
There are so many. One of the most obvious is Silver Drive, at the Grand Traverse Commons. It connects the hospital to Silver Lake Road. It was built with low-impact techniques, is walkable, bikeable and uses traffic-calming techniques. Also the roundabouts out by Meijer in Williamsburg. But also things like the Fair Food Network, working with local farmers on distribution of food. Groundwork picked up pieces of that, and it has developed into what we see today.
And there’s more … The expansion of the waterfront. The pocket park in Suttons Bay where the trail comes into Suttons Bay. That’s not a large investment in the county, but it’s important. Things in Frankfort with redevelopment there. Streetscaping projects in East Jordan, Boyne City, Beulah, Kingsley. These things may not be directly attributed to Grand Vision, but there has been cross-pollinating. The Ann Arbor to Traverse City rail project is another one.
What about something you wish Grand Vision had looked harder at?
This was happening after the economic crash, and we were inundated with foreclosures. There wasn’t an emphasis on new housing and affordable housing. I mean, who was thinking of affordable housing back then? But now this wonderful place we have created is too expensive for many people to afford to live here. The median price for a newly built average house in Michigan is $220,000. In Grand Traverse County it’s $437,000. What do we build? What do we need, across all pricing strata, what do we need? That needs to be looked at.
How about something the Grand Vision recommended but is not being embraced?
The Grand Vision really focused on putting development in the existing cities and towns to stop sprawl, find a different way to do it. We still need more infill building, more brownfield development. People still need to understand that if you grow, you either go up or you go out. We are currently going out.
Should we stop to assess, see how we’ve done?
Yes, I think we should. We should go back and review that plan, give ourselves a scorecard. We are 10 years in. Are we on the right track? You would do that if you were a business. But nobody is doing that now.
What about personally, how did the process affect you?
It changed me a lot. I now sit on the Sustainability Advisory Committee of the National Association of Realtors. They now realize at the national level that this stuff matters. Smart growth building principles. Energy efficiency in commercial and residential properties. I’m one of the longest serving members. Yes, this is now a big part of who I am.