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Partnership News and Views: What’s next in Marquette County’s COVID-19 recovery

SARAH LUCAS

Summer’s here, and Michigan’s long-awaited re-opening is on the horizon.

Last June, with no vaccine in sight, businesses just opening back up for limited capacity, the tourism season an unknown, and governments fearing the worst for public budgets, there were plenty of dire predictions about what was in store. Some even turned out to be true – high COVID-19 case rates meant tragedy for many Michigan residents and took us into a second shutdown.

In April 2020, unemployment in Marquette County was 21%; even after reopening in late May, nearly 12% were still unemployed. With numbers like that, economic predictions were understandably bleak.

But anyone who thought we were down for the count was mistaken. Businesses proved their resilience throughout the year-long rollercoaster of closings and re-openings, government programs allowed businesses to recover some lost revenue, and the vaccine rolled out this spring – putting us in a much different spot today.

This April, unemployment in Marquette County was 5% – right where we were pre-pandemic. Now, the bigger problem facing business is the ability to find workers, due to issues like childcare and difficulty in recruiting new workers to the area because of limited housing availability; and demand for all kinds of goods and materials is higher than supply.

Meanwhile, businesses continue to grow and expand: the LSCP has been celebrating a huge run of business openings and re-openings with ribbon cuttings. And one way to paraphrase the outlook for our area’s tourism season, is, you could say, “brace yourself” – it’s going to be a big one.

It’s hard not to feel a bit of whiplash about how quickly things have turned economically, and to wonder what’s next.

The pandemic is uncharted territory, and predictions are tricky in times like these. But we can look to history to show us how we’ve fared in other times of crisis – like the Great Depression and World War II. Both events led to a game-changing level of growth and investment in our infrastructure, economy, and workforce.

The pandemic, and our state and national response to it, are nothing if not game-changing. We’ve rewritten the rules of work, business, school, and home – in some cases to the benefit of both business and workers. At the same time, the American Rescue Plan Act is bringing billions to local and county governments that will allow us to prioritize our biggest needs at the local level. The state, too, has billions more dollars than predicted, and is working through the political process to address some of the issues that have been spotlighted by the pandemic. Just in the last week or so, significant new state investments in broadband and childcare, along with support to businesses raising their starting wage to $15 an hour, have been announced. And in Washington, leaders are debating an infrastructure and jobs bill that could result in another massive investment in infrastructure, housing, and employment supports.

This means we have opportunities to make changes that get at the roots of some community and economic issues that have plagued us for years, and that were accelerated to a crisis point by the pandemic. We have a chance now to invest in the economic development “infrastructure” that will make us ready to handle whatever it is that comes next.

So let’s allow ourselves a little bit of optimism – and celebration! Be careful of course, but get out there and enjoy the weather, rescheduled weddings, and all the events that were canceled last year – like LSCP’s June 17 golf outing, sponsored by Eagle Mine, Ojibwa Casino and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. We can’t wait to see you out and about!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sarah Lucas is CEO of the Lake Superior Community Partnership. Her twice-monthly column will address topics of interest to the local business community.

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