Turn the City over to the Dogs | Opinion
Posted by Gary Howe | March 13, 2021
We heard they were coming, but we didn’t know how long they would stay. The public typically did not take time to attend our monthly Parks and Recreation Commission meetings. Still, on that particular Thursday evening 10 years ago, a controversial project in West Bay was on the agenda. As we expected, over 100 people came to talk about it.
The other group of people we heard sat patiently in the back of the room. You weren’t there for the controversy. They weren’t even on the agenda. They were there to call upon Traverse City to build the first off-leash dog park. You might as well have asked for dogs to be brought to Mars.
The city was in the midst of a multi-million dollar transformation of its bay. The Parks and Recreation Commission, although growing in importance, was still an advisory body with no authority. All the progress that emerged from the commission was due to the tenacity of the townspeople and the voluntary members of the commission.
That spring night, when we finally made it to the point in the gathering where the general public could speak, two townspeople, Jami and Levi, rose from their seats in the background to propose a dog park within the city limits on behalf of her small group of followers. They stated that their inquiries to the community and the county were unsuccessful. “It’s just a fence,” they told the commission. “We can do this before summer starts. Traverse City can do that.”
It’s no secret that I generally prefer dogs over humans. When I travel to other cities, I visit the places where dogs can run and play. So I had a great understanding of Jami and Levi’s cause. As a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission, I knew the city had recently added a dog park to its five-year plan. And as an observer of local politics, I knew that this request from a small group of citizens for a dog park in the office of the city administrator or at the city commission itself on the recommendation of our commission did not stand a great chance. In 2011, the city’s leaders focused on downsizing, cutting costs and paving streets. If we were to wag the dog, we’d need a plan.
“I’m with you,” I said to Jami and Levi after the meeting. “I appreciate your optimism, but we have to work on your schedule. It will take a lot of work to be successful.” They left suspicious but committed. A month later, they returned to our monthly meeting to remind us of their request, and the Park and Recreation Commission set up a subcommittee to work with the dog park champions.
We didn’t open the dog park until summer as Jami and Levi had hoped. Advocacy for the good, even for good dogs, is seldom a straight line. It took over a year and a half to open Wags West, which is still the only dog park in town to this day (there is now Silver Lake Dog Park 10 minutes west of town). It took nine months to develop a plan and submit it to the city commission. It took another six months for the city to apply for fencing. It took nearly a year to raise the $ 30,000 to build the park. It was a few more years before water stations and a donor mark were added. Thank you all.
To make this long journey from the idea of improving civil rights to the reality of public infrastructure, we have created a vision and step-by-step plan to get there. The schedule kept us optimistic as obstacles came on its heels and the howl of the opposition filled the skies. This is how we dealt with it:
We have set ourselves a clear goal. We wanted an off-leash dog park in town where dogs and people can socialize. We called it an off-leash people park. We wanted to bring people together as much as we wanted to make life easier for our dog friends.
We defined the problem. Dog parks have become increasingly popular across the country. Official dog parks in the US started in 1979, but when we started the process in 2011, there wasn’t a single dog park in our area. Establishing an off-leash dog park would meet the growing needs of dog owners and improve the quality of life and economic vitality of the city.
We have formed a coalition. We launched an outreach strategy that included a public survey on the issue and awareness-raising events across the community. Companies were showing off their pro-dog tags by signing up and promoting the cause. As the coalition grew, so did the momentum.
We have identified obstacles. Funding was one of the main obstacles to the project’s success. We knew that the city commission would not accept any money from the city budget. So we raised money. The Parks and Recreation Commission also held public hearings and listened to concerns. My favorite came from a gentleman who proudly stood up and said to us, “I live near the proposed location. I can see why you chose it and I agree it’s a good place. I came to today.” To let you know that I don’t want him around, but I wish you the best of luck. “After the meeting, we went to the construction site with him and talked about ways to improve our plans.
We stuck to our plan. All good plans are adjusted when they correspond to the realities of the time. Our road to dog park fame has had a few twists and turns. But we kept our noses on the smell and reached our quarry.
We celebrated. Celebrating victories is an essential step in any endeavor. After we were approved, we celebrated with a carnival celebration. And when the fence was ready in fall 2012, we had a party in the park with dogs and people both on leashes to attend. There were prizes, costumes and lots of ear scratches.
Eight years later we are still partying. We champions have all gone our separate ways, but every time we pass the corner of Division Road and Bay Street we shout out to the dogs and people happily enjoying a space reserved for them to be themselves. We also encourage others who want to improve their community. Keep on the hunt.
Gary Howe served on the Traverse City City Park and Recreation Commission from 2009 to 2014.