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State’s Rural Areas Deserve Cabinet Position

On January 29, Governor Whitmer will deliver her second State of the State address to a joint session of the Michigan legislature in a live broadcast all across the state. In it, she will reflect on her administration’s accomplishments of the past year and project her priorities for this first year of a new decade.

In that address, we hope to hear, from the Governor, a commitment to rural policy and rural service delivery across the spectrum – from economic development to health care and education. It’s well documented and understood that rural service and program delivery is different and challenging. Rural is just different. And that’s okay! Our organization recognizes and embraces that.

But what that doesn’t mean is that rural regions are less capable, or less deserving, of sustained economic stability and social well-being.

A fact that also can’t be pushed aside is that rural counties across the state are in decline. Dying, some might say. Meaning, more people die in rural counties each year than are born or migrate, as reported in a Bridge Magazine article in 2019. Even “vibrant” counties like Grand Traverse, with a net growth population, continue to lose people in a key workforce demographic of 35-50 years of age. This demographic is the age range also most likely to have school-age children and high earning potential.

With such a daunting outlook for small and rural areas, even as the state as a whole has touted its emergence from the recession a decade ago, we believe this warrants a specialized and focused look at how our governments, at every level, can set policies that will allow the small cities and rural regions of our state to grow and flourish economically and socially.

This isn’t necessarily about a one-time influx of cash or one particular law change. It’s about a concerted effort to develop small communities, deliver services, and fund business opportunities and critical infrastructure that allows for growing, stable 21st-century economies in rural areas across the state.

To ignite this focus, we are teaming up with the Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance, InvestUP, Housing North, and supporters statewide to push for changes in state and local policy that impact the state’s small cities and rural regions.

One major endeavor we are undertaking is to convince Gov. Whitmer’s administration of the need for a rural department or cabinet-level position within her administration that would focus on and be responsible for the state’s rural policy growth and coordination. We see no reason why Michigan shouldn’t be a national leader in this area.

In a nutshell, this concept would coordinate Michigan’s rural policy with stakeholders across the state, including working within Michigan’s other state departments to ensure a quality and coordinated level of policy, funding, and service delivery.

The Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance will be in Lansing for the annual address and will lead a press event to more formally launch our rural affairs and development coalition. While we don’t believe the Governor is ready to announce a major rural policy development – such as our proposed rural affairs and development department – we are hopeful she will designate some time and attention to the need for relevant and coordinated statewide rural policy.