© 2024 WUTC
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In A Small Town With Big Events, Some Are Tiring Of Tourism

In Traverse City, which has hosted the National Cherry Festival since 1926, some residents say festivals occupy the public park too much, while others say it's a reasonable price to pay for the money it brings to businesses.
Traverse City Tourism
In Traverse City, which has hosted the National Cherry Festival since 1926, some residents say festivals occupy the public park too much, while others say it's a reasonable price to pay for the money it brings to businesses.

Many small towns across the country are using special events to attract visitors and commerce. The strategy has been a big hit in places like Aspen, Colo., and Park City, Utah, whose names have become synonymous with major festivals.

But it can take a toll. Some residents in the northern Michigan town of Traverse City complain that they're suffering from festival fatigue and would like a little less excitement.

Traverse City has been in the festival business since the 1920s, beginning with the National Cherry Festival. In 2005, Michael Moore launched a film festival, and a wide variety of events have sprung up since.

Sam Porter, who owns an event production company, has been called the party man in his hometown.

"We have about 200 events we've done in Traverse City," Porter says. "You'll see Mario Batali, you'll see microbrew festivals, you'll see the Dandy Horse [Bike] Festival, which was really just a tool to launch the first bike swap."

Lots of Porter's events have a social cause, like selling used bikes to support the area's network of bike trails.

The way he sees it, events are a great way for a region to exhibit itself.

"We always talk about the big events," he says. "That's only two, three or four different events — but really, look at all the thousands of micro-events that really make up who we are as northern Michigan."

The Price Of Tourism

But it's the big events that have some of his neighbors riled up. Earlier this fall, some residents told their commissioners they had enough.

The big events are held on Lake Michigan's Grand Traverse Bay in a downtown gathering place called The Open Space.

"I resent that I can't go there an awful lot anymore because there's always these frickin' fences blocking my access to the Open Space," Karen Nielsen told the city commissioners.

After that meeting, the city proposed limiting the number of festivals, and the concept of "festival fatigue" took off.

Though the business community warned city leaders not to send the wrong message to visitors, Commissioner Barbara Budros was emphatic that tourists cost the city money.

"One point three million people come here, drive on our streets, use our infrastructure, leave trash, whatever," she said. "We're never going to be able to recoup the cost."

Brad Van Dommelen, who heads Traverse City's visitors bureau, looked startled when Budros said that.

He estimates that visitors spend more than $1 billion in the area every year.

"That is money that is earned elsewhere, that is being brought into our community — deposited in local businesses," he says.

Why Festivals Succeed

Lots of places are trying to attract that money. Dan McCole, an assistant professor and tourism researcher at Michigan State University, points to Caseville: It's a tiny town in Michigan's thumb that started a cheeseburger festival more than a decade ago.

The first year, he says, the town of 800 residents attracted 5,000 visitors. Last year, 300,000 cheeseburgers were sold in 10 days.

McCole says festivals like this fit with the way Americans are vacationing now: shorter trips with less advance planning.

"With festivals, you can take a last-minute trip," he says. "Festivals are run on weekends normally, or at least that's when they have their busy time, so that fits in well."

For major destinations, McCole says, events offer a new experience each time, like changing the sets in a play.

But some in Traverse City have been watching the play for decades, and they say they're not certain they want another act.

Copyright 2013 Interlochen Public Radio

Peter Payette is the Executive Director of Interlochen Public Radio and has managed the news department since 2001. For more than a decade, he hosted the weekly programPoints North and has reported on a wide range of issues critical to the culture and economy of northern Michigan. His work has been featured on NPR, Michigan Radio, Bridge magazine and Edible Grande Traverse. He has taught journalism and radio production to students and adults at Interlochen Center for the Arts. He is also working on a book about the use of aquaculture to manage Great Lakes fisheries, particularly the use of salmon from the Pacific Ocean to create a sport fishery in the 1960s.