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Ken Winter

Ken Winter

Michigan’s Islands Align to Rally Support

October 6, 2017

BEAVER ISLAND—You could close your eyes and think you were hearing the economic and political challenges facing any rural Michigan community wrestling with the lack of affordable housing, good paying jobs and public transportation to/from  education and healthcare.

When you open your eyes, you realize these are many of the same issues facing fourteen inhabited islands around the Great Lakes, with a few other obstacles only an island would have to deal with.  Some seventy participants met Monday and Tuesday to listen and exchange ideas for the first ever 2017 Islands Summit, “Laying the Foundation for a Great Lakes Islands Coalition”.

Interested in getting information and exchanging ideas, elected officials, managers and school superintendents came from some of the largest islands–Mackinac Island, Drummond, Manitoulin (Ontario) and Les Cheneaux (Cedarville and Hessel), to the smallest—Middle and South Bass Islands (Lake Erie), Harens Island (St. Clair River) and Pelee Island between Detroit and Windsor.

It was organized by a little known independent state department—the Office of the Great Lakes—which works to protect and restore our state’s waters.  It reports directly to the governor and, for budget purposes only, shows up under the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.  The small 20-member staff works and partners to support sustainable coastal communities, restore degraded waters, manage water quality and quantity, and prevent aquatic invasive species.

Outside the islanders attending the conference and those involved with the 8-state Great Lakes Compact or some water quality issues, it’s doubtful few know about the state office.  It was originally started by former Governor Jim Blanchard, expanded and made a cabinet level independent agency by Governor John Engler, then continued by Gov. Rick Snyder.

Jon Allan, a 2012 gubernatorial appointee, says his department sponsored the two-day summit to help island leaders meet each other and share common problems. Allan previously was the director of environmental policy and intergovernmental affairs for Consumers Energy Company.  He has co-chaired the DEQ’s Water Use Advisory panel and Michigan’s Groundwater Conservation Advisory Council, served as a key adviser to the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact negotiations, as well as co-chaired the Governor’s Blue-Ribbon Parks Commission

“We were surprised by the number who came,” Allan says. “Registration picked up that last week and we really had no idea who would come.”

The islanders spent the first day introducing each other’s islands, hearing a northern Wisconsin college professor discuss the challenges of developing accurate metrics in low populated areas to measure growth, and for grant applications not accurately tracked by the U.S. Census.

Representatives from the Maine Islands Institute, founded in 1883, shared how it works to sustain Maine’s 15-year-round islands and 105 coastal communities along 3,487 miles of coast line. Their core program areas include economic development, education, community energy, marine resources, and media.

Almost all islands face a shortage of summer workers and housing with aging year-round populations.  They’re still dealing with declining property values that have not recovered from the 2008 depression.  Most have tourist-based seasonal economies and struggle to provide needed police, fire and emergency services, as well electric, water and sewer services.  Many have huge seasonal fluctuations like Mackinac, who serve 450 residents in the winter, only to climb to a record-breaking estimated one million visitors over this last July 4th weekend.

“We have to gear up, we are dealing with two different times,” says Mackinac Mayor Margaret Doud, who was thankful no major incidents occurred last July.

Others, like Clark Township supervisor Mark Clymer, finds himself dealing invasive weeds (Myriophyllum spicatum (Eurasian watermilfoil, EWM) that are now choking its waterways around the Les Cheneaux Islands and clogging boat motors and propellers.

In an area where the economy is mostly tourism-based, Clymer adds affordable housing for seasonal workers as non-existent.  What had been available has been taken by students enrolled in its boat and culinary schools (they offer no housing).

Beaver Island School Board President Susan Myers echoes many island school districts’ concerns with declining enrollment due to fewer younger families living on the islands due to the lack of good paying jobs. Her district has dropped to only forty- seven students.  Others have closed high schools, sending students to mainland schools that come with high transportations costs.

Harold Stieber of Harkens Island says his small island with has no hotels, gas stations or stores.  They have an aging population that has dropped from 3,000 residents in the 1920’s to 1,147 today, with fifty percent going to Florida in the winter. Located at the mouth of the St. Clair River, the residents want no change.

“We have a lot of transit boating and boating,” he adds. He’s attempting to gather support for a kayak launching ramp to attract new revenue.

Then there are places like Beaver Island with no water or sewer systems that prohibit business growth in its downtown. With no high-speed internet service, it’s doubtful telecommuting will ever gain a foot hold.  One islander says they’re trying to figure out how to get rid of 400 abandoned cars left on the island. 

They also face a nation-wide decline in print newspapers, as Beaver Beacon Editor Cindy Ricksgers and long-time NorthernIslander Elaine West explain how difficult—if not impossible it was to have two print publications in a small market. The NorthernIslander has signed an agreement to buy the Beaver Beacon,

Attendees say they are now looking at how they can establish communication between themselves and establish a stronger political voice working together to lobby state and federal lawmakers for sorely needed funds.

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.

October 5, 2017 · Filed under Winter



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