Northern and Rural Michigan

Jul 26, 2019 by

By Tom Watkins –

Michigan’s official state motto is: “Si Quæris PeninsulamAmœnam Circumspice”– “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.”   Please do.

Travel the state and take in the joy, wonder and beauty that Michigan has to offer. All it takes is a quick trip “Up North” to soothe the soul. Look at the reflection of the clouds on a cool lake, the call of the loons, the rapid flutter of a hummingbird, a full moon twinkling across the lake, a beautiful sunset or a  walk in the woods – tonics that give life peace and meaning.

The two largest rural areas of Michigan are Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. The Upper Peninsula accounts for just 3 percent of the state’s population and nearly 30 percent of the state’s total land mass.

Some of the top issues facing rural Michigan are: Energy costs and access, road development and repair, internet and broadband access, lack of high paying 21st century jobs, access to economic development growth, health care availability, poverty and education costs and quality schools.

I have traversed both peninsulas in our state through the decades but have spent the bulk of my working professional life in urban environments.  I always feel a magnetic pull to “the country.” Places with big trees, bodies of water, wild flowers, open fields, and wildlife. I can feel change come over my body and my senses come alive when I step out into the northern fields, woods, or splash in a stream or lake.

I like the smell of camp fires and the mustiness of an old growth forest, the clean cool air, an imprint of my boots on fresh snow, the rush of cross country or downhill skiing, the sounds of seagulls, chirps of birds and the magic of frogs coming alive as the sun sets.

I can trace my attraction to rural areas from my childhood summer experiences at Grandma’s cottage on the banks of the Potomac River in Tall Timbers, St Mary’s County, Maryland. Corn, tobacco and tomato fields, woods, well water, propane as fuel, and septic tanks along with sunsets, swimming, fishing, crabbing and a General Store that was also the post office, gas station, bar and the gathering place for news long before the Internet.

A smile comes over my face anytime I hear the sound of a wooden screen doorslamming.  Memories!

State Policy

Policymakers under the Capitol Dome can help rural Michigan thrive.  State policy can be a powerful force for economic development that builds strong rural communities and creates genuine economic opportunity for people. Michigan must make the commitment to sustain and expand important programs for rural revitalization.

In a series of articles meant to help revitalize rural America, the Center for Rural Affairs laid out 7 strategies to assist rural parts of our country. They spell out specific ideas around tax reform, rural investment, leadership development, renewable energy, and technology, that states can put in place to revitalize their rural parts of Michigan and America.

My colleague, David Haynes, former president of Northern Michigan University (NMU) and currently a professor of Public Administration at NMU, and I have asked Governor Whitmer to show rural Michigan some special love and appoint a senior-level cabinet member to be her advisor on rural policy. We point out that in the past, Governors have had formal and informal urban/suburban policy agendas, but we have never had a formal state rural policy agenda, much less a cabinet-level appointee. We believe it is time.

To be fair, Governor Whitmer does have Gary McDowell, Director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD). However, we believe that, while helpful, this dilutes the focus that is needed to address the numerous anchors on rural Michigan.

Governor Whitmer has also appointed a good man and a Yooper, former State Senator Mike Prusi as the director of the northern Michigan office.

I have pointed out in Crain’s Detroit Business that there are areas of rural Michigan that currently have limited to no access to broadband Internet. This is simply unacceptable. I ask: “Why is it that I can get better Internet and cell phone connections in rural China than I can in some spots in rural Michigan?”

I have asked our policymakers under the Capitol Dome to seek out and promote policies and investment as we have in the past with the game changing construction of the Mackinac Bridge that had a profound impact on economic development and quality of life for Michigan. We need to be seeking ways to support rural Michigan and unite our state.

Youth: Don’t Look Away 

Clearly, while there are challenges in rural Michigan, there are also great assets and opportunities. Young people seeking a place to settle down, build families and careers and a sense of grounding and connection should not overlook rural communities. In this New York Times Op-Ed piece, Samuel J. Abrams, professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argues: “Hey, College Graduates: Don’t Dismiss Rural America; You don’t have to live in a big city to succeed economically and socially.”

Pure Michigan

We are a large and beautiful state. Clearly we need to pay attention to our urban core but we cannot turn away from rural Michigan and the hopes, dreams, needs, aspirations and challenges that lie hidden there behind the tourist attractions that dot Northern Michigan and the UP.

We will not grow a stable state that can thrive as the 21st unfolds on minimum wage tourism-dependent jobs.

We need a rural strategy that lets us bask in the beauty that Michigan has in abundance while investing in ways that rural Michigan can tap into from a global market created by jobs and investment.

We can and must do better for rural Michigan.

Source: Northern and Rural Michigan  | Dome Magazine

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1 Comment

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