No Zip Code Left Behind: How Michigan’s New Office of Rural Development Could Impact Northern Michigan

On New Year’s Day, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order creating the state’s first-ever Office of Rural Development (ORD). As part of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), ORD “will focus on all rural matters, provide advice on pressing issues in rural Michigan, and offer insight into how the Whitmer-Gilchrist administration can invest in thriving rural communities.” And earlier this month, Whitmer proposed a budget that would direct $10 million in public funding to the ORD in its first year – theoretically empowering the office to start making a difference in rural parts of the state. While the ORD is just beginning to take shape, The ticker sat down with MDARD Director Gary McDowell to learn more about the office and what it could mean for Northern Michigan.

Ticker: There has been so much discussion, especially since the start of the pandemic, about the unique challenges that rural areas face – in terms of work, healthcare, education and access to broadband. Many of these elements have been identified as key priorities for the DSB to address. Can you tell us more about these goals?

McDowell: The pandemic has brought to light the vast number of needs in rural areas that have been neglected for years. You talk about broadband; you talk about health care; you talk about housing; you’re talking about labor issues. In all these areas [our rural regions] have been delayed for a long time.

The idea for the ORD actually came from northern Michigan, the Grand Traverse Chamber Alliance; and off the Upper Peninsula, InvestUP and Lake Superior Community Partners. Governor Whitmer saw [the concept] and I thought that was a great idea. Then the pandemic arrived and shone a spotlight on problems in rural Michigan.

With Whitmer’s MI New Economy Plan and federal dollars coming our way, it was a perfect opportunity to look at what we can do to make sure Michigan’s economy thrives for everyone in the state – not only depending on where your zip code is.

So we look at the environment; we look at the inputs to economic development; we look at supply chain issues; we are looking at labor shortages; we are looking at new technologies that will help the rural part of the state. We really try to look at everything the rural part of the state will need.

I live in a small town in UP called Rudyard, and I’ve seen a change in my life. We were a small, vibrant community at one time. But it’s so hard now to navigate things [like funding, approvals, or other help] with the state government, with the federal government, or with all of your foundations. Whatever your community’s dreams or aspirations are, you need a global office that can pull all those pieces together and help you navigate that maze of regulations and hurdles. Most small towns just don’t know who to talk to. This office is going to be their partner.

Ticker: Whitmer’s proposed budget for this year includes $10 million for the ORD. How will this money be spent?

McDowell: We are starting with one person in this office – the Deputy Director of Rural Development – and we will take it one step at a time [beyond that] to make sure we get that right. No one can do this job; they’re going to have to have support. But the first step is to set up the assistant manager, then the manager can start building the office. This post has been posted, and [Friday, February 4] was the last day for nominations. We’re reviewing applicants right now, and hope to have an interview shortly and have the office up and running by mid-March.

Beyond hiring a director, we are really looking for ideas. We’re researching what people in rural Michigan want from this office, what they see as the most critical issues they want us to address. This $10 million from the state is there for us to help rural communities implement the things they need to grow, expand and prosper.

MDARD also has a grant program, the Agricultural Development Fund, through which we help emerging small businesses, primarily in agriculture. In this new budget, the Governor has proposed an additional $30 million for this fund. So it’s a big investment, and it’s going to help our small processors and our large processors across the state. Then there’s another million dollars in the budget to fund a marketing campaign for Michigan farm products; other states have done it and had great success, so we’ll try it here. And Whitmer has also set aside $500,000 to help families facing food insecurity, so they can get fresh vegetables and fruit. So the governor has made a real commitment to the rural part of the state with this budget.

Ticker: The original DSB announcement set out some specific responsibilities for the office. These include support for rural economic development; finding ways to provide more affordable housing; investing in green energy; solve the educational problems facing rural communities; expansion of high-speed Internet service; and connect with tribal leaders. I guess this is more of a basic list of what might be in play, but not necessarily excluding anything that might come into the conversation?

McDowell: Yes, that was just a general overview of what we envision. But any idea that a community has, please take it forward. We are not limited to, say, housing or broadband. This office is meant as a way to improve the quality of life in the rural part of the state, and it’s meant to be multi-faceted. We want to respond to the specific needs of rural communities. It can be sewage or another type of infrastructure. But whatever your community needs, we want to be that partner to help you get there.

About Keneth T. Graves

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