MARQUETTE, Mich. (WLUC) — The beginning of a new future for rural Upper Michigan may soon be here.
The National Office for Rural Development (ORD) plans to improve the quality of life in UP by tackling some of its problems. On Tuesday, representatives from 12 of UP’s 15 counties showed up in person at the Northern Center or virtually on Zoom for the ORD’s introductory roundtable.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill in January creating the Office of Rural Development 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 director of the Lake Superior Community Partnership explained the purpose of the ORD.
“Much of what we’re talking about is about the policies, programs and resources needed in rural Michigan and how can we work with state, local and regional partners to make sure rural priorities are addressed. “, said the deputy director of the DSB. Lucas said.
The United States Department of Agriculture classifies Michigan’s 1.8 million residents as rural. This includes all of the approximately 300,000 people living in UP MDARD Director Gary McDowell added that he believed the ORD would give a voice to those who are often forgotten in state government.
“We feel like we’ve been left behind for many years,” McDowell said. “I grew up in UP and have lived here all my life. It’s a unique opportunity we have right now to have a voice.
McDowell said another major issue facing Upper Michigan is a shrinking workforce. McDowell noted that one reason is due to a declining population.
“In UP, we’ve been losing population for years,” McDowell said. “I think since the 1920 census we’ve been losing population every decade.”
According to the US Census, almost every county in Upper Michigan saw its population decline in 2020. The only county with an increase in population is Houghton County.
Lucas pointed out that this is directly caused by an aging population associated with young people leaving the area. Lucas added that she is optimistic the youngsters will return if the ORD addresses some quality of life issues.
“I think we’re actually facing some real opportunities in terms of being able to get people back to UP and rural Michigan,” Lucas said. “A lot of it depends on our ability to provide things like increased rural broadband internet access, more rural affordable housing options, and making sure the overall quality of life is improved.”
Lucas said she wanted to remind the public that the ORD likely won’t be able to solve all the problems that rural counties face. Lucas added that the ORD will be successful if it can achieve even some of its goals to make UP a better place to live.
Lucas noted that the ORD is currently working on a master plan with the help of UP county leaders Lucas said this plan will help determine which areas of concern the ORD focuses on first.
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