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Making most out of Michigan

Amy Clickner

It started with the 2018 New York Times article, “Can Rural America Be Saved?”, but read more like, “should rural America be saved?”, which was responded to by Professor Jean Hardy, University of Michigan Research Assistant whose work on rural economic and social development is well recognized, in “How Rural America is Saving Itself” published by CityLab.

Did you know that of the 83 counties in Michigan, 59 of them are considered rural? That there are 2 million Michiganders that reside in rural communities? Even the counties that are considered “metro” agree that they have rural areas within that space. In total, rural makes up 20% of the state’s population.

Taking all of this into consideration, conversations began with folks with like-minded concerns. The Lake Superior Community Partnership, Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance and InvestUP quickly realized this is an opportunity that cannot be overlooked. We searched out Professor Hardy. Shared our thoughts with others. We started paying more attention to stories in the media that talked about “limited internet access”, “rural hospital dilemmas”, “suicides spiking in rural Michigan” and “debt haunting small towns”. All of this led to the crafting of a white paper and plan for a solution.

So how do we make the most of Michigan? Let me introduce you to the proposed Rural Affairs and Development (RAAD) Department for the State of Michigan and the coalition that kicked this off in Lansing last week during a press briefing.

Despite the state’s emergence from the recession, many rural areas have been slower to recover, and nearly all are losing population especially in key workforce age demographics. We don’t dispute that fact. If not addressed, depopulation and economic stagnation can lead to a number of economic and social challenges like lack of workforce, shortage of local tax revenues, hospitals and schools closing or cutting back and a lack of high wage job growth opportunities.

We need to make the most of what Michigan has to offer… meaning urban, suburban and rural. The Rural Affairs and Development Department will do just that. The director would be at a peer level with other department leaders and help guide internal and external state policy on rural affairs. The ability to focus and coordinate rural policy efforts that deal with rural affairs, funding and service delivery would break down silos, use current resources more effectively and leverage additional public and private resources. Michigan would be a national leader in targeting rural economic growth and stability in this manner.

At the Lansing press event we highlighted issues in rural healthcare, demographics, energy, economic development, housing, childcare and talent. This broad overview supported the premise that RAAD is much needed. To be clear this is not growing government, but rather coordinating government to focus on and elevate rural challenges.

Keep in mind this is not a Northern Michigan issue or an Upper Peninsula issue, for that matter. This is a statewide issue, supported by 80+ business, education, government and non-profit champions that have already committed to this movement. We believe this will allow Michigan’s rural areas to be better poised for positive change and growth that will buck the national trend. For more information, head to marquette.org/ruralaffairsanddevelopment/.

Editor’s NOTE: Amy Clickner is CEO of the Lake Superior Community Partnership. Her twice-monthly column will address topics of interest to the local business community.