Northern Michigan to get support from new Office of Rural Development

Michigan has a new rural development office based in Lansing, but its leadership comes with a connection to northern Michigan.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer created the brand new office in January, but it took until the latest budget to be enacted for the office to be fully funded. The Assistant Manager has strong ties to the Grand Traverse area – and the Upper Peninsula.

The first deputy director of the new office is Sarah Lucas, “One of the great hopes and vision of this office is to be a voice for rural communities in the decision-making process.” The new Office of Rural Development is located in Lansing, under the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Lucas was nominated by MDARD Director (and former Northern Michigan lawmaker) Gary McDowell. While she will be based in the capital, much of the work will be done on the road in rural communities across the state.

“The idea was really to ensure better access to rural communities and some of the resources and programs that currently exist or may become available in the future,” says Lucas. She comes from the Lake Superior Community Partnership in Marquette and, before that, from Networks Northwest in Traverse City. “Many state agencies work closely with local governments and organizations on the ground. But there has been no collective voice for rural communities in the past.

Whether it’s housing or broadband, labor shortages, child care or agricultural issues, the Rural Development Office is here to help. “Rural communities across the state face some really complex issues related to demographic trends. Due to the aging of the population and the loss of young people, we are facing problems related to the loss of income and the drop in school enrollment,” says Lucas. “It can be very difficult for a rural community that has maybe one or two paid staff to apply for those dollars and administer those grants locally. Limited staff, limited budgets really impact the ability of communities to solve their problems locally.

State Sen. Wayne Schmidt says he’s eager to see the good that comes with the newly created office. He says securing state funding for this, and programs like the Creative Coast — aimed at recruiting Michigan’s workforce — will get things done, “That, coupled with the Office of Development rural, is really a good boost to attract more young people. here.”

Rural MichTraverse Connect agrees that years of talking about the issues facing small communities can get some muscle through formal support from Lansing.

“We’re also happy that this office is fully staffed so that we can work on some of these policy items – which we had talked about before this office was established – and really put the rubber on the road and really start doing a difference for people in northern Michigan,” said government relations director Henry Wolf.

The title of assistant director is not an elected position, but Sarah Lucas agrees that this new position is almost like another form of representation at Lansing. However, regardless of any party affiliation, the focus is on what’s best for rural Michigan.

“It wasn’t a matter of (R) or (D),” Senator Schmidt said. “It was about Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula pulling together to make sure their voice was heard in Lansing,” he says. “The fact that she’s fighting for us too really makes a difference.”

“We really want to have, I guess, ‘a rural voice at the table’ as agencies and policy makers consider programs or new resources or new policies,” Lucas said. “We really need to think about how they affect rural communities.

“We really need to think about solutions for housing, broadband connectivity, child care. All those amenities that bring people back to our communities. And keep them there for the long haul,” Lucas added. “No matter what part of the state you’re in, if you’re in a rural community, you have very similar issues related to understaffing, needing housing, needing child care. And some of the difficulties in accessing resources to solve these problems.

Lucas says new grant opportunities for rural communities will begin this fall. The remaining positions in the new office could also be filled in the coming months.

About Keneth T. Graves

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