Michigan Office of Rural Development explains goals for rural Michigan

The ORD held an introductory roundtable discussion on how it wants to develop Upper Michigan, which is mostly rural.
Published: Jun. 7, 2022 at 5:58 PM EDT
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MARQUETTE, Mich. (WLUC) - The start of a new future for rural Upper Michigan could soon be here.

The State Office of Rural Development (ORD) plans to improve the quality of life in the U.P. by addressing some of its issues. Tuesday, representatives from 12 of the 15 U.P. counties appeared in person at the Northern Center or virtually on Zoom for the ORD’s introductory roundtable discussion.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill creating the Office of Rural Development in January as a subsidiary of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD). MDARD appointed Sarah Lucas as deputy director in March. On Tuesday, the former Lake Superior Community Partnership director explained the ORD’s purpose.

“A lot of what we are talking about is looking at the policies, programs and resources that are needed in rural Michigan and how can we work with state, local and regional partners to make sure that rural priorities are being addressed,” ORD Deputy Director Lucas said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies 1.8 million Michigan residents as rural. This includes all of the roughly 300,000 people living in the U.P. MDARD Director Gary McDowell added that he believes the ORD will give a voice to those who are often forgotten in state government.

“We feel we have been left behind for many years,” McDowell said. “I grew up in the U.P. and have lived here all of my life. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we have right now to have a voice.”

McDowell said another massive issue facing Upper Michigan is a dwindling workforce. McDowell noted that one reason is due to a declining population.

“In the U.P. we have been losing population for years,” McDowell said. “I think since the 1920 census we have lost population every ten years.”

According to the U.S. Census, nearly every county in Upper Michigan saw a population decrease in 2020. The only county that grew in population was Houghton County.

Lucas emphasized that this is directly caused by an aging population coupled with young people leaving the area. Lucas added she is optimistic young people will return if the ORD addresses some quality of life concerns.

“I think we are actually facing some real opportunities in terms of being able to bring people back to the U.P. and rural Michigan,” Lucas said. “A lot of that is really dependant on our ability to ensure things like increased rural access to broadband internet, more rural affordable housing options and make sure overall quality of life is improved.”

Lucas said she wants to remind the public that the ORD will likely not be able to solve every issue that rural counties face. Lucas added that the ORD will be a success if it can achieve even some of its goals to make the U.P. a better place to live.

Lucas noted that the ORD is currently working on a master plan with the help of leaders from counties across the U.P. Lucas said this plan will help determine what areas of concern the ORD focuses on first.

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