35 Years of Community Celebration with Retiring City Planner, Russ Soyring

Russ Soyring on a boat and relaxing.

Russ Soyring has served as the City Planner of Traverse City since 1986. His impact on the community is far and wide. In large part, it’s thanks to Soyring that Traverse City is consistently recognized as a leader in promoting walking and rolling. For the last 35 years, you could find him almost daily riding his bike from Central Neighborhood, through Hannah Park, and to the Governmental Center.

Last week, he sat down with Norte’s Advocacy Director, Gary Howe, to chat about his experience during the previous four decades and our community’s past and future challenges and opportunities. He retires this week. Team Orange extends our deepest gratitude for his vision and commitment to making Traverse City and Northern Michigan one of the best places to live.


Thank you, Russ. We look forward to working with you on your next big plans, even if we start small. 😉


Soyring’s position will be filled by Shawn Winter in early March. Winter facilitated Norte’s first Advocate Academy in 2018. We’re equally excited about the next 35 years for the community as we are looking back with Soyring. 

Safe and Responsible

Registration Open For Norte’s 2020 Explore Academy

Norte’s Explore Academy once  again invites teens to learn and use their voice to shape their community.

Norte’s advocacy program is again offering teens a unique opportunity to explore their community and develop their own voice in shaping it. The Explore Academy is a six-week, student-informed practical course featuring an experiential understanding of how communities are planned, built, and changed over time.

“Explore is an excellent opportunity for teenagers to step out into the community and develop not only their understanding of how the community works – or doesn’t work – but also develop their voices and skills to work towards making the positive changes they see that are needed,” said Norte Advocacy Director, Gary Howe. Howe once again is teaming up with the owner of Parallel Solutions, Megan Olds, to facilitate the fall program.

Norte’s Explore Academy is open to all 13 to 18-year-olds interested in community leadership, planning, and development. Students will graduate with a heightened understanding of decision-making processes and advanced observational and communication skills. This year’s interactive sessions will be held online and include frequent break out sessions. Guest speakers will offer expertise and insight as students develop their interests. Last year’s session featured TART Trails Executive Director, Julie Clark, and BATA’s Transportation Planner and Planning Commissioner, Tyler Bevier. Some of the class meetups will be in-person physically distanced walking conversations—masks required for safety.

“In light of an ongoing public health crisis, continued community protests and marches, coastal flooding, wildfires, and against the backdrop of a national election, this year’s program is primed for some deep exploration and conversations focused on how design, policies, and investments in places impact and are impacted by these conditions,” said Olds. “I’m looking forward to hearing students’ thoughts and observations about whom and what they see impacted, how decisions are made, and what types of design and investments they feel matter most and why.”

The program’s weekly meetups begin September 28 and meet on Mondays from 4:30 to 5:30. The six sessions include an additional four-weeks of independent teamwork. The program costs $35 per participant, with plenty of scholarships available.   The 2020 Explore Academy is underwritten by the Traverse Area Association of REALTORS® (TAAR) and a Smart Growth Grant from the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR). The Norte advocacy training program introduces teenagers to smart growth principles through its hands-on, active curriculum. Children of TAAR members are eligible for free registration.

“We’re excited to have the support of TAAR and their national partner, NAR. Their support allows us to offer an adaptable curriculum to more students by virtually eliminating any financial burden,” said Howe. “In response to the pandemic, we’ve needed to adapt the structure of the course, but not the key goals. Explore remains an engaging exploration of the neighborhoods of the Grand Traverse Region while doing our part to keep everyone safe, healthy, and to stop the spread of the coronavirus.”

For more information and to register for Norte’s 2020 Explore Academy, please visit: Norte Explore Academy.

If you have questions about the program and for scholarship information, please contact Gary Howe at gary@elgruponorte.org.

If you’d like to make a $35 donation to sponsor a student, please go to https://elgruponorte.org/donations/explore/.

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Norte | Happy. Healthy. Strong.  

Program Facilitators  

Megan Olds has dedicated her 20-year career to community growth and development, land and water conservation and restoration, food and farming systems, housing, transportation, and access to nature and outdoor recreation. She was a former Director of Regional Planning at Networks Northwest and served as a past board member of the Michigan Association of Planning and Michigan’s Complete Streets Advisory Council. She worked for seven years as the Associate Director and Director of Development for the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy. Pairing her professional experience in community and organizational development with a personal zeal for building trust and clarity in decision-making, Megan founded Parallel Solutions in 2014. You can find out more about her firm’s services, clients, and recent projects at www.parallelmi.com.

Gary Howe brings over ten years of direct experience in creating and advocating for public policy and planning processes that support healthy transportation and socially-engaging public spaces to his role as Norte’s Advocacy Director. He served as a City Commissioner for the City of Traverse City from 2013-2017, in addition to serving on the Planning Commission and Parks and Recreation Commission, and on the boards of Neahtawanta Center, SEEDS, and International Affairs Forum. He is also a writer and New York Times-published photographer with over 20 years of teaching experience in China, Taiwan, and Traverse City, including 15 years as an adjunct instructor at Northwestern Michigan College.

Engage and Represent: Serve on a Local Board or Committee

As local communities gear up for November elections, this is an opportune time to remind Team Orange that there are plenty of additional ways to engage and represent in your local government. Across the Grand Traverse region, several volunteer boards and commissions have open seats. Serving on a board, commission, or committee is an excellent way for citizens to be involved and find their voice for local initiatives.

Below you will find a list of regional opportunities, and resources for many volunteer opportunities. Each municipality handles these citizen appointments differently, but typically openings will be listed online. There is never a wrong time to apply and express interest in serving, even if there are no current openings. Typically, you can do this through the Clerk’s office. Unless otherwise stated, you must be a resident in the municipality that you are seeking an appointment.


Traverse City is always accepting applications and you can do so by going to the Clerk’s office or visiting the City’s website. The following boards have vacancies. Links go to their descriptions, schedules, and minutes.

Apply through the Clerk’s office by filling out this application form (PDF) and returning it the City Clerk.

There are vacancies on 11 of Grand Traverse County’s boards and committees. Please visit their website for the full listings. Below are the openings for opportunities most relevant to our mission for promoting happy, healthy, strong, communities. Note, Parks and Recreation oversees policies related to the Civic Center.
Apply to Grand Traverse County by sending a resume and application form (PDF) to ccramer@grandtraverse.org or delivering it to the County Administration at 400 Boardman Avenue.

Leelanau County has openings for the following opportunities.

  • Planning Commission
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Airport Commission
To apply, there is an extensive application form (PDF) and a complete process description (PDF). For more information, For more information, please contact Executive Assistant, Laurel Evans, levans@co.leelanau.mi.us. Download a complete list of expiring terms for all boards and committees (PDF).


  • Garfield Township has openings (PDF) on Planning Commission, Parks and Recreation, and Grand Traverse Joint Planning Commission (think the Commons). If interested, you can download the Board Appointment Policy and Application (PDF) and send a completed copy to Garfield Township to the attention of Supervisor Chuck Korn, 3848 Veterans Drive, Traverse City MI 49684. You may also email him at ckorn@garfield-twp.com.
  • East Bay Township posts openings on boards and commissions under employment postings and you can see updates by going to the drop down menu, “How do I…” on their website. Each board is different, but typically a letter of interest is requested. If you are interested, you can email Township Supervisor, Beth Friend, bfriend@eastbaytwp.org
  • Blair Township, apply and express interest by contacting Township Clerk, Lynette Wolfgang.
  • Long Lake Township is always seeking applicants to serve on Planning Commission and Parks and Recreation. To apply, download the Application for Appointment (PDF) and return it to Township Supervisor, Karen J. Rosa, supervisor@longlaketownship.com or deliver it to Township Hall at 8870 North Long Lake Road.
  • Elmwood Township asks interested parties to send a completed Application to Become Involved (PDF) form and resume to 10090 E. Lincoln Rd. Traverse City, MI 49684 or email it to Township Clerk, Connie M. Preston, clerkpreston@elmwoodtownship.net. Committees of interest include Planning Commission, Parks and Recreation, Marina Committee, and Public Safety Committee.

For vacancies in Kalkaska County, download this full listing of boards and committees (PDF). The term ending column will give you the current openings. To apply, send an email of interest to  County Clerk, Deborah Hill, dhill@kalkaskacourt.org.

Are you interested in a municipality not listed here? Or, have questions on what it takes to serve on a board or committee, send Norte’s Advocacy Director a message at Gary@elgrupnorte.org

Engage and Represent!

Continued Learning for Citizen Advocates

We recently shared the story of the 2019 Advocate Academy with the primary funder of this year’s program, the League of Michigan Bicyclists. This is an an adapted version of the original report published by LMB. You can meet this year’s graduates on May 9 at their graduation celebration. There will be a chance to introduce yourself, talk community, enjoy a beverage, and then tour by bike the three project locations identified during the academy.


The Grand Traverse Advocate Academy is a call to community action. It’s aimed at fellow citizens who see missing sidewalks and say, “we can do better than this and I’m going to do something about it.”

We’re all familiar with similar stories because they are everywhere. A mom sees a need for a better crosswalk. A group of downtown office workers wants a bike lane. A family wants safe access to a park. Hopes and dreams are part of the community and it takes work to realize them. The Advocate Academy helps citizen dreamers become citizen advocates.

This year’s 5-week session began like last year with the crafting of a personal narrative. We do this because the values driving our personal narratives are powerful tools for persuasion. When we articulate them as individuals and then as a coalition, our advocacy becomes shared. Those shared stories become the foundation to goals we work to put in place.

In the first week, we borrowed from the author Daniel Pink and used the Pixar Pitch from his book, To Sell is Human. The framing activates our brain’s natural inclination to story–it draws us in. Read the following example from our class and see how you nod in agreement.

‘Once upon a time, there was a mom and her young son. Every day, the mom drove across town with her son to drop him off at preschool and then go to work. Summer traffic was terrible and the 3-mile trip could sometimes take up to 45 minutes! Because of that, the mom became fed up and decided to ride her bike with a bike trailer instead. Because of that, the two had to cross several unsafe intersections and/or risk their safety using bike lanes on busy streets. Until finally, a group of spirited and passionate citizens (GTAA) got together and made changes to improve bike and pedestrian safety in the city.’

The academy is a lot to process. But, as an introduction to local advocacy, we hope three broad lessons come across.

  1. Advocate for Others. That advocating for something larger than yourself is empowering. Speaking up for a better community creates opportunities that can help your cause.
  2. Team Building. That team building is a powerful tool. Joining forces shows wide support and diversifies your coalition’s skillset.
  3. There’s Help. That there are tools and organizations within your reach to help you achieve your goal. Norte’s Neighborhood Pro-walk/Pro-Bike Advocacy program is one such resource.

For 2020, the key questions to examine include the length of each session and the course itself. There is a wide agreement for more time to process information and to work with each other on a real project. Norte will look to refine the course material and presentation. Evaluations suggest that more time learning tactics, strategy, and planning concepts will help build confidence. And finally, we will include more opportunities to learn from one another and practice advocating. This will help build a practical understanding of the concepts and show how a few Citizen Advocates can indeed effect change.

In addition, there will be a continued opportunity for direct, on the ground learning through walking audits, pop-up demonstrations, and tactile urbanism to demonstrate the need for safer, more inviting design of our public spaces.

The 2019 Grand Traverse Advocate Academy was co-sponsored by Groundwork Center. This year’s academy also received a micro-grant from the League of Michigan Bicyclists. Norte says thank you to both of these awesome partners.”