It’s just past noon and a soundtrack with Jack Johnson’s unhurried voice carries through speakers onstage and overhead, a mellow-music backdrop to an increasingly busy scene on the front lawn of the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. Sam Porter is somewhere around here, Meagan Alvarado says, lifting a black walkie-talkie to her mouth. “Sam, Sam, are you there?”
A moment later, Porter’s friendly, albeit all-business reply: “Yep, I’m here. What’s up?” He’s suddenly also in view, just a short distance away, jostling in a golf cart driver’s seat as he maneuvers over tree roots toward the tented area where Alvarado is stationed for the morning. She’s Porter’s right-hand person for this Summer Microbrew & Music Festival—and lots of other Porterhouse Production events. I’ve been sitting with Alvarado waiting for Porter to show up for our interview, and meanwhile watching the whirl of activity as volunteers check in for the two-day shindig. “Hop on,” a shorts-clad Porter tells me as he pulls the cart up to the tent.
The weather is cooperating on this late summer day—bluest of skies, hint-of-fall mid-60s temps—and with just a few hours before they'll welcome hundreds of festival-goers to the outdoor event, prep is full-on, and the sense of building anticipation is palpable. Before Porter puts the golf cart into gear, he takes a call on his cell phone. There’s an issue, he’s been told, something about the size and availability of the pint glasses ordered for the festival.
“All right, here we go, hit me,” he says into the phone, propping his right foot on the dash.
That Porter, with his hundreds of volunteers, is handling this particular detail is no surprise to Alvarado, who has known the blond, shaggy-haired owner of Porterhouse Productions since high school. She has learned in her time working with him that he’s intimately involved with his events—maybe a little too much so at times—focusing on micro things while macro things need tending.
“He has a hand in every aspect of the festival. It’s a blessing and a curse,” Alvarado says. “If someone drops a cigarette butt on the ground, he’s picking it up—that’s how he is. But he’s also booking national acts, working with groups in L.A. and New York.”
Later, after resolving the pint glass question, he’s on to another walkie-talkie request, this time from someone inquiring about refrigeration and needing help hooking up vendors to a power source.
“Like see, right now he’s worrying about ice and electrical,” says Alvarado, her blue eyes rolling as she shakes a head of caramel-colored curls. “This is the kind of stuff that cracks me up.”
Porter and his wife, Abby, returned to their hometown of Traverse City from Bozeman, Montana, in 2008, bringing their successful entertainment and events production company with them. He is by his own admission someone with “boundless energy—an energizer bunny.” On this first day of Porterhouse Productions’ third annual summer brew fest, this assessment reveals itself in his rising before dawn and conducting a 5 a.m. on-site local television interview. Then it’s on to nonstop buzzing about the grounds on the golf cart to direct vendors and volunteers, to greet performers, to stop and chat with the service people (he’ll give away tickets to the latter group, “the guys who do so much for these events,” he says.)
In the end, Porter will tell you, his enthusiasm for this event and all the others is about creating the kind of community in which he and his family and friends wish to live. And he’s certainly done much in this regard, with an estimated more than 40,000 tickets sold over the past three years to Porterhouse Productions’ winter and summer microbrew fests, Paella in the Park, An Evening with Mario Batali and Charlevoix’s Up North Fourth, among other events.
But Porter’s homecoming has not been without its challenges, starting with the earliest days of introducing Porterhouse Productions’ community-arts-youth-entertainment ideas to local leaders. Some residents, particularly the younger crowd, were eager to support the Porterhouse Productions mission, while others weren’t as easily convinced. “I think people have a hard time with growth,” he says.
Even today, Porter’s lightning-speed ideas tumble out faster than what some people are comfortable with.
“I get a lot of push-back. We’re very innovative in a progressive way,” Porter says.
One particular lesson learned the hard way: some music events will just be too rockin’ for certain venues—namely, downtown’s City Opera House. In October 2009, Umphrey’s McGee concertgoers, clearly having too much of a good time, upset some locals after leaving the historic and elegantly-restored building in disarray—at least one attendee got sick in the drinking fountain, among other offenses, and the building’s devotees worried that tremors from raucous dancing would damage the Grande Dame.
Plenty of people weren’t happy, and Porter acknowledged that the venue wasn’t perhaps the ideal host for certain events. The situation was in large part responsible for Porterhouse setting out to acquire his own venue—more on that later. As proof that the opera house relationship was not permanently damaged, Porterhouse has held events there since, and was allowed to schedule a Blues Traveler concert the weekend of the 2012 Winter Microbrew & Music Festival.
To alleviate any concerns of history repeating itself, Porter promised a “huge team” on site at Blues Traveler to ensure a “controlled” event. “It has to be—right? If it isn’t, then no one wins,” he says.
Still, despite any fumbles past or hurdles ahead, there’s no denying just how much Porterhouse Productions has altered the region’s cultural and foodie landscape with its concerts, fund-raisers, food and wine events, family celebrations and other experiences.
“I think he deserves a lot of credit for the energy toward creating things for folks of all ages, particularly the younger crowd,” says Benjamin Marentette, 31, Traverse City’s deputy city clerk, who has worked with Porter on special events requiring city approvals. “He is very creative, and he has a ton of ideas that come out very fast. That is an awesome thing. There are a variety of folks in this community that are fairly critical of events, and I think he has been able to prove to those folks that they can embrace his. I think we’ve seen it from the positive responses and the lack of complaints.”
Traverse City attorney Chris Bzdok, who served as mayor from 2009 to 2011 and has attended several Porterhouse Production events, says it like this: “Flat out for a certain demographic, or probably a few demographics, Sam Porter is the guy who is going to make Traverse City fun. We have the Cherry Festival, the Horse Shows by the Bay, the Film Festival, and those are great. But for other demographics, this is where our hope lies … He’s like the mayor of fun. And he’s doing it with the right attitude, a social conscience, all at the same time.”
Sam and Abby Porter, both 35, have longtime family ties to Northern Michigan. They met and fell in love during high school and have lived in Traverse City’s Central Neighborhood since returning to the area four years ago. Now the parents of Mae, 5, and Rose, 1, they live in a house across the street from Sam’s childhood home.
“We want our kids to have a childhood like we had,” Abby Porter says. “But a lot of what we’re doing, too, is looking forward to not only having our kids have a really fun time in Traverse City, but their friends, too.”
To do this, the Porters decided to take all that they’d experienced outside of Michigan—in Boulder, Colorado, where Abby studied creative writing and graphic design, and in Montana where they’d built Porterhouse Productions—and return to the Up North they’ve always loved. They realized they weren’t alone.
Alvarado, for one, is among those Porter calls the “Comeback Kids”—Traverse City natives, many of them young parents, who’ve returned to their hometown and are collaborating with Porterhouse Productions. Alvarado, along with her husband Pete and their two young children, moved from Madison, Wisconsin, where they’d lived for seven years.
It wasn’t long after their return to Traverse City when Alvarado ran into Porter at a local farm market. “I told him we’d moved back, and he said to come on in and be volunteer coordinator,” she recalls. That progressed into a little bit of everything.
“This is my third beer festival, including the winter one, and I did two Paellas in the Park,” says Alvarado, who in September significantly scaled back her involvement with Porterhouse to focus on her young family (she keeps in regular contact with Sam and Abby, offering a sounding board for their ideas).
“It’s busy, but there’s a really good energy. It’s really positive,” she says. “That’s what has kept me going. I’ll be somewhere random, like Willow Hill, at the school picking up my kids, and someone there will say, ‘You just threw the best party in Traverse City. My husband and I had so much fun!’”
“It’s a completely volunteer-run festival,” she says. “Almost all of the profits go back into the community, to nonprofits. A lot of people don’t see it that way. (But) that’s big, that’s big.”
Sam Porter lives in the world of circles. So he tells me on a windy December morning at The Good Work Collective, the Union Street venue he and Abby opened in 2011. They call it a “think/do all-arts gallery space” for community ideas, grassroots projects, brainstorm sessions and creative concepts to come to life. The early-1900s building that once housed Nesbitt Hardware today hosts everything from independent artists’ markets, fund-raisers and private receptions to family-friendly musical performances, including one event presenting local high school bands and the guitar-playing superintendent of Traverse City Area Public Schools, Steve Cousins.
Seated on comfy old couches near the rear of the building, the Porters are talking about accelerating culture. He presses his thumb and middle finger together to form a circle as he talks, trying to illustrate the interconnectedness that communities must have to thrive.
He flips open his Mac to show me a diagram he’s found online, to better explain. It features numerous green, orange and blue circles, the main ones being nature, society and capital. Connecting together, these circles meet to create equity, ecology and economy, with ‘reliable prosperity’ at its center.
It’s a lot to take on, to help reshape a community, a local culture. Pausing at this fairly serious thought, he suddenly smiles. “Some people will look at that and say, ‘Porter, that’s how many plates you’re spinning.’”
It’s true the ideas rarely slow down—Abby Porter can attest to that.
“Your energy and personality, it’s who you are. It’s how you think,” she says to him. Turning to me, she says, “I joke on his gravestone it’ll say ‘Sam Porter: I have an idea.’”
Porter’s mind just keeps turning … and turning. It requires patience, though, he’s found.
“Sometimes I have to sit on my hands and wait,” he says. “And that’s hard.”
Sometimes it also means midcourse corrections when his decisions raise the ire of other players in town. The highest profile example happened earlier this year when Porterhouse Productions opted to move its fourth annual Winter Microbrew & Music Festival from Old Town to the Grand Traverse Commons grounds. The decision came after a contentious scheduling conflict that involved three different local festivals: Porter’s microbrew and music fest, Michael Moore’s Comedy Arts Festival and the city's Winter WOWFest. With multiple festivals planned for February, the city and other event organizers hoped to spread the events out and not have any of them land on the same weekend. The parties met January 2011, and a follow-up letter to all involved from Bryan Crough, Traverse City’s community development director at the time, summed up the meeting—the festivals would each have their own weekend, with the first weekend of the month slated for the microbrew fest, the second weekend to comedy fest. Crough’s email read: “We have February 2012 worked out! … [I]f incorrect please let me know immediately."
Several months passed and then, with the dates just a few months away, Porter announced without consultation with Crough or Moore that he was going to stay with his original weekend—the same weekend as the comedy festival. Moore sent emails to his supporters criticizing Porter’s decision, and those close to Porterhouse Productions disputed Moore’s account of how things unfolded. “At no time were dates for February 2012 officially confirmed by the involved organizations, and the festival conflict appears to have arisen from the misunderstanding of what were proposed versus confirmed dates,” Porter says. Ultimately Moore canceled the comedy festival, saying it wouldn’t be held in the same downtown location and on the same weekend as the winter microbrew and music festival. When Porterhouse Productions switched venues to the Grand Traverse Commons in hopes of appeasing comedy festival organizers, Moore said the move came too late.
Plans for the February 2012 brew fest, however, pushed ahead. The situation was reminiscent of past hurdles Porter and Porterhouse Productions have faced, including those early days of resettling in his hometown and getting resistance to his ideas.
Thinking back to Porter during those earlier days, former mayor Bzdok says, “[He] regrouped and found other ways to get it done. That’s part of his energy and big-thinker traits. Those are assets to him, re-grouping and rolling with the punches.”
And in between meeting with like-minded community leaders, brainstorming ideas on napkins, rallying his volunteers and putting on new events, there is some quiet to be had. There is his family.
“Nature inspires us,” he says, mentioning a favorite less-traveled spot south of downtown he likes exploring with his kids.
It’s likely that even in these more peaceful moments, Porter is contemplating what’s next for Porterhouse Productions, for his kids, and for tomorrow’s Northern Michigan. Back in his Good Work space (which, true to form, he hopes to expand), pondering his contribution to furthering local arts and youth programming, he shares a simple reason for doing what he does. “What makes me tick is that next generation.”