Opportunity binge

Healthier Drinking Culture Plan Tabs Short-, Long-Term Solutions; Public Input Next

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Traverse City commissioners who’ve been reluctant to issue liquor licenses in the city until a Healthier Drinking Culture plan is finalized will get their first look at the report this week. The draft strategic plan, published late Monday, outlines both short and long-term recommendations for combatting the city’s image as a “party town,” with public input sought on the plan through September 30 before city leaders vote to adopt the report in October.

A Northern Michigan Regional Entity (NMRE) grant paid for the city, Downtown Development Authority (DDA), and Traverse City Police Department to hire local strategic planning company Statecraft and community engagement and organizational firm Parallel Solutions to analyze the city’s drinking culture and identify opportunities for improvement. The months-long process included conducting an online community survey that generated 1,130 responses and holding both focus groups and one-on-one conversations with numerous liquor license holders, businessowners, employees, and local health professionals.

According to the report, there are 119 liquor license locations and 225 liquor licenses in the City of Traverse City (a single location can possess multiple types of licenses). In Grand Traverse County, an estimated 20.7 percent of adults are “excessive” drinkers based on results from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, an annual phone survey conducted by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Grand Traverse County ranked 25th out of 83 counties for excessive drinking, according to the survey. Raw survey data indicates that 26 percent of respondents binge drink (five or more drinks on one occasion for men and four or more drinks on one occasion for women), and 10 percent are heavy drinkers (more than two drinks daily for men or one drink daily for women).

According to the Healthier Drinking Culture draft strategic plan, Traverse City Police Department Chief Jeff O’Brien “names alcohol as an underlying factor in nearly every call his department responds to, including trespassing, disorderly conduct, assault and battery, and domestic violence activities. Business owners are concerned about disorderly crowds, unsafe conditions for patrons and staff, loitering, and property damage due to overconsumption. Community stakeholders, including residents, businesses, and nonprofits, are concerned about the drinking culture’s impact on Traverse City’s character, resources, and reputation.”

The plan notes that “the drinking culture in Traverse City is a complex and systemic issue, informed by cultural norms and behaviors that extend beyond the boundaries of our community.” Accordingly, “given the complexity of the topic, this project did not identify, or tend to identify, one silver bullet solution to create a healthier drinking culture in Traverse City.” Instead, the plan contains “numerous recommendations” generated directly from stakeholder feedback to improve the city’s culture and reputation. The ideas are grouped into three categories: immediate steps (0-18 months), short-term (1-3 years), and long-term (4-5 years). Each steps assigns a responsible party to handle the action – such as a particular city department, community organization, or business sector – as well as resources needed to accomplish the task and metrics for success.

One of 18 immediate action steps is to update Traverse City’s ordinances and liquor license permitting process to “create objective and clear criteria for the desired number, type, and location of liquor licenses, including at the neighborhood and corridor level.” Several commissioners have complained that the city lacks a process for evaluating the quality or controlling the number of liquor license applications that come before them. The city’s rules should also be updated to set clear criteria including routes and operating hours for pedicab licenses, according to the plan.

Other immediate action steps include exploring creating a policy for tour bus operators (including training and certification options), better tracking alcohol-related incidents in the city, increasing the downtown presence of police officers, identifying locations where lighting can be improved on downtown alleys and streets, and securing funding for security cameras throughout downtown. The plan also recommends forming a Responsible Hospitality Council, encouraging businesses to add more non-alcoholic craft beverage options to their menus, improving marketing and signage to promote transportation options to customers who are drinking, and better advertising the availability of overnight parking in downtown parking lots.

Short-term steps recommended over the next 1-3 years include updating criteria for the number and type of events allowed on outdoor city property, increasing the number of full-time TCPD officers, installing the lighting and video camera improvements, and working one-one-one with businesses to address areas where negative impacts are recurring and promote health and wellness resources for employees. The plan also recommends looking cohesively at any other city ordinances that could put impact the culture, such as noise or recreational marijuana rules, “to address alignment with drinking culture vision and goals.” As a long-term step over the next 4-5 years, the plan recommends exploring “the feasibility of offering more transportation options that support the Healthier Drinking Culture vision, including late evening public and private transportation options” and “affordable and accessible transportation options for those traveling to and from areas outside the downtown.”

DDA CEO Jean Derenzy says the DDA will be tackling recommended “steps as quickly as we can” and assisting other organizations in implementing their pieces of the plan, assuming the plan is adopted by city commissioners. She thinks the plan can effectively address concerns raised by commissioners about drinking impacts downtown, particularly by setting clearer parameters around the number of liquor licenses the city allows of different types in different locations. “I think this plan puts us in position to be able to start implementing change,” she says. “I think the business community, residents, and visitors have spoken that there are areas of improvement we can tackle…and some of these things are low-hanging fruit if we do them together. Now that we know some of the issues, we can have improved decision-making going forward.”

Several steps are scheduled to take place in the coming weeks leading up to a city commission vote to formally approve the Healthier Drinking Culture strategic plan. The schedule is as follows:

Monday, September 13: The draft strategic plan is published for review on the HDC website. A survey link will provide an opportunity to share feedback until September 30.
Friday, September 17, 8:30am: There will be a presentation of the draft plan to the DDA board at their regularly scheduled meeting.
Monday, September 27: There will be two open houses at 12-1pm and 4-7pm in the Training Room of the Government Center for community members to review and share feedback on the draft plan.
Monday, September 27: There will be a presentation of the draft plan to city commissioners at their regularly scheduled study session at 7pm.
Friday, October 15, 8:30am: The DDA board will consider the approval of a final plan at their scheduled meeting.
Monday, October 18, 7pm: The city commission will consider the approval of a final plan at
their scheduled meeting.

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