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Drinking culture plan offers solutions to alcohol-related incidents in Traverse City

Taylor Wizner
Interlochen Public Radio
A crowded Union Street on a Saturday night. Traverse City officials are considering solutions for what some call an “unhealthy drinking culture.”

It was a late Friday afternoon when Traverse City Commissioner Roger Putman was sitting on his deck in the usually quiet Boardman neighborhood.

Then a group of 12 people rode by on a pedal pub, blasting music.

“A woman was walking her five-year-old, four-year-old across the street,” Putman says, presumably on their way to F and M Park. “I’m here on my deck watching this. This person who was obviously overserved used some extremely foul language.”

One of the passengers on the peddle pub shouted the F-word four or five times as the group rode north on Railroad Avenue.

Putman and his neighbor were shocked that no one in the group, including the tour operator, quieted the drunken passenger.

Obscene language and loud music aren’t the worst offences. But some people say they’ve noticed a change in the city’s culture, where intoxicated people are more often disrupting the peace, damaging landscaping and littering broken bottles in several Traverse City neighborhoods.

Those residents blame visitors, who they say come to the area with the primary goal of drinking, whether it’s going on a bus tour of the wineries or starting a day-long bar crawl.

The Traverse City police say they’ve been dealing with the problems for a while.

Police Chief Jeff O’Brien says last weekend a bouncer at a local bar got into a dispute with a couple of men who were allegedly drunk, after he refused to let them inside. It ended with the worker being admitted to the hospital with broken teeth.

“Those people that work at that bar, they have the right, the responsibility, they have the authority to tell people you’re intoxicated, go home. Then they get assaulted. That’s the culture we’re trying to change,” O’Brien says.

While the majority of those who drink alcohol act appropriately, O’Brien says the number of incidents each week still overwhelms his small police force. With just 30 officers, they’re staffed at the same levels they were in the 1970s when the city’s population was much smaller.

Almost every weekend he says his department arrests people for drunken fighting. In the bad cases, someone ends up at the hospital in a coma.

Hit and runs have also been on the rise, O’Brien says. A few weeks ago, an assumed drunk driver caused damage to the water fountains at the public restrooms on Park Street.

O’Brien says the city doesn’t have the money to pay for undercover officers in bars or extra drunk driving patrols.

Bachelorette parties have been the focus of some of the blame.

Jennifer Brickner says that’s unfair. She came up from central Michigan to celebrate her friend’s wedding by taking her on a Kayak, Bike and Brew tour.

The experience was designed so that people drink responsibly, she says.

“I know that I had a drink and then like the next place I ordered … some cheese curds and had water,” Brickner says. “Then you might be kayaking for 45 minutes.”

Brickner and her group stayed in Airbnb condos near the bars. When they arrived the family next door went over and told them to be respectful of the residential neighborhood.

Her group was happy to accommodate the neighbors and they stayed quiet.

She says she was surprised the Airbnbs were surrounded by what appeared to be family homes.

“I mean you kind of have to expect some rowdiness on the weekends if you live near a big bar section,” she says.

The city government, the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority, and the police have spent months developing possible solutions in a report called the Healthier Drinking Culture Strategic Plan.

Among many actions, it proposes more training for alcohol-related tour operators and businesses, adding lighting and security cameras around the city and some guidelines for regulating liquor licenses.

Putman says he and another city commissioner tried to issue a moratorium on city alcohol licenses, but their efforts didn’t gain traction. There are currently 119 licenses in the city.

He says to change that culture of excessive drinking, the community needs to change expectations for visitor experience.

“Part of your marketing to people is to get rid of the stigma of being a party town,” Putman says.

Trevor Tkach, the CEO and President of Traverse City Tourism, says they don’t really focus on highlighting drinking experiences.

“I would say what we spend in promoting consumption of alcohol is a fraction of the overall budget,” he says.

They spend way more on the outdoor appeal of the community—focusing instead on the Sleeping Bear Dunes and golfing, says Tkach.

But Pure Michigan, the state’s advertising campaign regularly advertises discount specials promoting girlfriend’s getaways at the wineries.

Another proposal in the plan is to empower businesses to cut off more patrons.

“[Liquor license holders] have some responsibilities with that license to start cutting people off if they’re intoxicated,” Chief O’Brien says. “Some of those problems that come out of the bars are because of overserving.”

He says the story of the bouncer refusing access to the bar was an example of the system operating as it should.

The Healthier Drinking coalition will present its report to the Traverse City DDA at their meeting Friday morning.

The public is welcome to view the draft of the plan and give feedback at two open houses next Monday, Sept. 27 in the Training Room of the Government Center from noon-1 p.m. and from 4-7 p.m.

Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.