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Tourism officials expect normal summer, despite big TC road project

A car drives past a construction barrel along East Front Street in Traverse City on Thursday afternoon. Orange barrels are staged along the side of the road, ready for detours and roadwork to begin March 10. (Photo: Ed Ronco/IPR News)
Ed Ronco
IPR News
A car drives past a construction barrel along East Front Street in Traverse City on Thursday afternoon. Orange barrels are staged along the side of the road, ready for detours and roadwork to begin March 10. (Photo: Ed Ronco/IPR News)
Reconstruction of one of Traverse City's most trafficked streets will cost $24.7 million and last until November.

Tourism officials don't expect it will heavily impact tourism flow throughout the region.

Those watching the region's tourism-heavy economy say they're more concerned about ongoing workforce and housing issues.

Orange cones are lining one Traverse City’s busiest streets ahead of one of communities largest road reconstruction projects to date.

Starting Sunday, the Michigan Department of Transportation is rebuilding U-S 31 from Garfield Avenue to just east of the city’s downtown area. Later in the summer, the project will be close to the city’s beachfront and is expected to cause traffic backups on a heavily traveled stretch of U-S 31.

The $24.7 million project has been in talks for years. In addition to rebuilding the roads, it will add more pedestrian walkways and improve critical wastewater infrastructure. The work is set to last until November.

Downtown business owners have already expressed concerns with the heavy detours at a public meeting last month. They worry the project may keep some people from visiting downtown shops and restaurants.

However, area tourism officials like Trevor Tkach, president of Traverse City Tourism, say the construction shouldn’t pose a problem for them.

“The construction will be a challenge for many visitors this year. But we don't anticipate a slowdown in occupancy,” Tkach said.

He says in most cases, tourists rarely will look at road and traffic conditions ahead of their vacation. But this summer, they will need to find ways to adapt once they get to the area.

“What we're doing at Traverse City Tourism is dispersing as much information to our lodging member properties as we possibly can so that they can inform their guests on how to best navigate Traverse City once they get here,” Tkach said.

Lodging members being hotels, motels and more.

The Downtown Development Authority and the Bay Area Transportation Authority are partnering to adjust bus routes to help navigate traffic detours.

Tkach says the Traverse Area Recreation Trail will also prove valuable for moving people this summer. The reconstruction of Front Street will also pave the way for expansions to the trail.

For other vacation destinations in northern Michigan, the project will likely have minimal impact.

“I can't imagine that droves of people would come here instead of going there because of that road being under construction,” said Amanda Wilkins, executive director of Visit Charlevoix, the community’s tourism agency. “I would imagine that most people that are trying to visit downtown Traverse City would still do that and find a way to get there.”

The thought is much the same in other vacation spots further north.

Areas like Charlevoix, Petoskey, and Boyne City have historically been destinations for short getaways and weekend vacations. Officials say those types of trips saw a spike during the pandemic years.

According to data sets from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Charlevoix County saw about $70 million more dollars spent by visitors in 2021 compared to 2020. The spending was even higher than pre-pandemic levels.

“People were looking for driving destinations versus flying destinations… So we benefited from that,” said Sarah Van Horn, president of the Charlevoix Chamber of Commerce. “I think this upcoming season will be on par with what we saw last year — which was down a little bit from the height of the pandemic.”

Emmet County saw a greater spike during the pandemic years — more than $100 million more dollars flowed into their economy in places like Petoskey and Boyne City.

While those spikes are expected to level off in the next few years, officials say they presented some new problems when it came to recruiting and retaining the area workforce.

Jim Powell is director of the Petoskey Visitors Bureau. He said those problems will likely persist this summer.

“I think it's always going to be a challenge, especially with some of the housing challenges that exist up here in northern Michigan and all over the state for that matter,” he said. “I think we as consumers understand and expect that. When I walk into a restaurant my expectations are certainly a little different than they were previously.”

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.