State Needs to Ante Up Financial Support for Rural Advancement

As spring returns to northern Michigan and we get the bikes out, dust off the deck furniture and get the boat ready, we are reminded of why we are lucky to live where we do. Our rural areas and bustling small towns are about to come alive with visitors and locals alike. We can look forward to enjoying everything this region has to offer during the warmer months and relish the fact that we live where other people hope to vacation.

While we appreciate the beauty and accessibility of our natural resources, perhaps even to a greater degree than our visitors, we also know the rest of the story of living up north. Vacationers see the great benefits of being here, but they do not fully understand the unique challenges we face as a rural region. With all due respect to Judy Garland, life in northern Michigan and other rural parts of the state is not always just a bowl of cherries.

As we know, rural areas include Michigan’s most beautiful outdoor destinations and support key economic sectors for our state, including agriculture, tourism, extractive industries and manufacturing. Rural communities are valuable contributors to our state’s economic and recreational landscape.

They contain 1.9 million Michiganders, support over 150,000 businesses, and are home to 22 of our state’s colleges and universities. Rural Michigan comprises 59 diverse counties spread throughout the state, from Hillsdale County at our southern border to Keweenaw County at our most northern point. While these areas differ in many respects, we also share key attributes.

Rural areas of Michigan face unique obstacles related to transportation, infrastructure, internet, and healthcare access. Rural communities struggle with issues such as depopulation, rural poverty, and lack of educational resources. Meanwhile, state-wide challenges like housing and childcare play out differently in rural parts of the state.

For Michigan to move successfully into the future, our unique challenges must be addressed in ways that are relevant and specifically tailored to rural areas. In many respects, rural Michigan can be an ideal place to start and grow a business and a family. But to fully realize this opportunity, the state needs to be serious about rural development and the ways in which we can best tackle economic, social, cultural, and environmental concerns in rural communities.

This is why business and community leaders across northern Michigan have teamed up with other rural Michiganders to successfully advocate for the creation of the Office of Rural Development at the state level. Earlier this year, Governor Whitmer heeded our call, established the office, and requested funding for its operations.

Importantly, the person hired to lead this new office is Sarah Lucas, a former Traverse City resident who was Community Development Director of Networks Northwest, founding Executive Director of Housing North, and until last month, led economic development efforts in Marquette. We have a leader for this office that understands our challenges because she has spent her career trying to address them here.

Now, our state legislators are deliberating whether to include this funding request in the state budget. The operating budget for the Office of Rural Development is a direct investment in our rural communities and the overall well-being of the state. The office will be focused on both new policy ideas and the improvement of existing programs from MSHDA, MEDC, MDHHS, LARA, and other agencies to improve the relevance of state programs and provide better outcomes for rural communities.

The office will increase economic and community development by providing dedicated staff and resources to help rural communities build local capacity, liaison more effectively with state departments, access and conduct research and policy analysis, and better leverage state and federal programs.

This will provide much-needed support for rural communities across the state, thereby making better use of existing programs, creating efficiencies, and improving outcomes for rural citizens while ultimately saving the State of Michigan money in the long run.

Our state legislators need to hear from community members about the importance of this issue for our region. It is time for state government to support us in moving rural Michigan forward. We deserve more resources to help us develop bottom-up solutions and advance new ideas generated in rural Michigan.

The establishment of this office, with proper funding, is a crucial step in positioning Michigan to be a national leader in rural prosperity.

Warren Call is the president/CEO of Traverse Connect, a regional economic development organization that includes the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and Venture North. Contact him at warren.call@traverseconnect.org.

 

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