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Ken Winter

Ken Winter

Ending the Labor Day Cycle

September 9, 2016

The final surge of clogged Michigan highways filled with people trying to catch the last of summer took place Labor Day weekend with the governor leading hundreds to officially end the summer season Up North by walking the Mackinac Bridge.  After Labor Day, there will be spurts of visitors for fall color and winter sports, but not the levels summer attracts.

Many families had already closed their cottages and favorite vacation spots to take their kids back for pre-season prep sport practices and earlier K-12 and college and university openings.  Older residents are making the journey to the south and west for warmer climates.

They leave behind the many restaurants and shops that remain open to capture the month or two of business before shuttering their windows and doors for the season and northern Michigan’s unemployment starts to climb. It rises to double-digit figures ranging from 11.5% to 18.5% until next summer when it again joins the rest of state’s single digits.  For many, it’s a right of passage to have part of the winter off by going on unemployment.

As identified by the Center of Michigan’s Bridge Magazine last year in its special report, “Poverty in Paradise”:  “Emmet, Charlevoix, and Cheboygan counties are blessed with some of the purest ‘Pure Michigan’ beauty and a thriving tourism economy. But they also face considerable challenges with poverty, education, economic diversity, and retraining young professionals.”

The Grand Rapids-based philanthropic Frey Foundation had approached Bridge Magazine last year to take a look at the complex issues of poverty in the three Up North counties and report on the complex challenges of rural poverty across northern Michigan.

The findings sadly aren’t much different in most other northern Michigan counties in the state’s Lower and Upper peninsulas.  Income disparity, for example, put the three counties near the top compared with other parts of the state with Emmet (2nd), Charlevoix (6th) and Cheboygan (18th).

The original in-depth look appeared in a series online in February 2015 reflecting on the lack of workers and business, hidden poverty, the exodus of young workers, public education, transportation and affordable housing for year-round workers and higher income mid-level professionals. Later its publisher, the Center for Michigan, a nonpartisan “think and do” tank, held special community conversations to ask local residents for their views and for possible solutions to curb the problems the area faces. 

Dome revealed families in poverty in 2013, for example, reached 26.6% in Cheboygan, 20.6% in Charlevoix and 12 % in Emmet counties.   The percentages continue to grow when compared to 2009, with not much indicating it will change in the near future.  Other studies done in the region pretty much mirror the findings.

Reactions to those studies have been mixed with only sporadic and often-periodic attempts lead by mostly government agencies and non-profit organizations working with local communities and regions to reverse the trend.  Even so, there have been some interesting efforts that could prove positive.

Unlike a decade ago, communities and educators have been promoting entrepreneurism in schools and workshops throughout the region as one possible solution to high employment.  Here individuals create their own employment opportunities instead of waiting for larger businesses and industries with larger employment opportunities and payrolls to open in the region.  The trend has been particularly popular with the younger generation, who value lifestyle and flexibility ahead of work, but need to make a living to survive with an opportunity to control their own destinies.

As a result, the area has experienced a growth in microbreweries, wineries, arts and crafts.  Various cottage industries produce everything from handbags to boats and horticulture, where sales have put Michigan 4th and in the 9th among states in organic food.  Most popular have been farm-to-table programs, where the Petoskey News-Review, northern Michigan’s second largest daily newspaper, identified a shift from factory farms to a farm-to-consumer approach last month in a special Rreport.

“There’s definitely a growth (in the) northwest Michigan region, from Grand Traverse up through Emmet County.  There’s a strong idea of people and organizations supporting farmers.  It’s helped increase the market demand,” observed one Boyne City farmer, who with his partner, Rachel Cross, bought part of an orchard farm property and started Spirit of Walloon Farms three years ago.

It’s been a slow comeback after the devastating recession of 2008.  It has changed the language from popular college prep to day-trades in my area’s  public and private schools. The shortage caused by a collapse in the building and construction industry and retirement of many older trades people, showed a need for vocational training offering a quicker path to employment and requiring no or little college debt.  For the first time in anyone’s memory, help wanted signs have been posted along roadways looking for welders, electricians, heating and air conditioning workers, as well as carpenters.

There remain strong worker shortages beyond the hospitality industry and local retail. The creation of local and regional-based economic development organizations are being created to lure business and industry to the area.  One northern Michigan economic alliance is going after professionals wanting to lure highly paid telecommuting professionals from urban areas desiring the quieter lifestyle of the north to live and raise families.

Besides the need for a higher-level skilled workforce for the construction industry, the region needs larger business and industry that can pay higher wages to attract more professional workers.  Even current industries, like healthcare, find it challenging to attract experienced mid-career nurses and allied workers for example, who supplement the newer local community college trained nurses.  Both family and specialized practicing physicians have required area hospitals to become involved with recruitment adding signing bonuses and salary supplement because of the disparity in salary earnings compared with metropolitan regions.  My current northern Michigan practicing physicians are nearing retirement age.

Besides available housing and a trained workforce, the region needs high-level connected Internet service, as many portions of the region remain underserved.

“Internet is becoming more and more of a critical infrastructure for everybody to do just everyday functions,” said Eric Frederick, executive director of Connect Michigan, a state-funded nonprofit charged with spreading web connection and use in Michigan.

He recently told the Traverse City Record Eagle that northern Michiganders, just a stone’s throw away from the closest wired, high-speed network connections, shell out high prices for connection speeds that make using the Internet a headache rather than an amenity.

“Their children, whose homework often relies on the web, must leave home in search of Wi-Fi networks at restaurants, libraries and coffee shops to complete assignments,” he observed.

“Stay-at home parents whose city dwelling counterparts earn income by working remotely can’t compete for similar web-based jobs. And basic information available through a simple search to most is all but inaccessible.”

He said while the Federal Communications Commission keeps tabs on progress in the effort to extend “high-quality” broadband access to all corners of the U.S., its 2016 findings are a bit unnerving. The federal agency’s 2016 broadband progress report shows that 39 percent of Americans who live in rural areas lack access to what it considers sufficient telecommunications services.

Unless local residents, beyond local and regional bureaucrats, take an active role in job training, business and industry recruit, northern Michigan will continue dependent on a tourist and agriculture-based economy that will only experience modest growth with continued poverty and low wages.

The area needs no more study; it needs active grassroots leadership to change the Labor Day cycle serving as a playground for tourists and wealthy summer resorters.

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

September 8, 2016 · Filed under Winter

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 John Wharton // Sep 9, 2016 at 10:07 am

    Excellent Article.
    Is our economy becoming a part time services function?
    IS anyone doing any studies on the consideration of Michigan, due to lower farm land costs, for potential future specialty farming ventures?
    As I drive thru Michigan on day trips, I note so much unused farm land that lies treeless and ready for planting.
    Seems to be an opportunity waiting to be developed.

  • 2 Anagnorisis // Sep 9, 2016 at 11:37 am

    It has always been that way here north of the imaginary line between Bay City and Muskegon for at least my 55-odd years since teenage travel north. The adage was that gas prices rose at Memorial Day and dropped after Labor Day, Unemployment was a way of life. The population cannot support the dynamics of “down below” and never will, never intended to. That’s why we’re all here. And that’s why we leave periodically. There are mill town jobs for those that can handle it, arts and crafts possibilities for those who can’t, construction for many others, and that’s about it except for the seasonal touristy professions. We all stay here because, well, it’s nicer here, fresh water, air, food, and I doubt many would even want it to change. Truthfully though many or most couldn’t exist here without government assistance. That’s the trouble in paradise: it doesn’t pay that well, at least not in US dollars.


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