Vive Ontonagon!

By on February 21st, 2020

A recent column provocatively headlined “Cancel Keweenaw, Outlaw Ontonagon” called for Lansing to force consolidation of local governments. Enhancing government efficiency is always a worthy subject. I doubt, though, there’s too much democracy in Michigan. What the good people of these Upper Peninsula locales need is for Lansing to afford them a true partnership with better tools to succeed, not more central command and control.

I write as a first-time elected local official who experienced the power of grassroots democracy in the 2016 election.  My neighbors travel no more than 15 minutes – not 75! – to tell me in public session, face to face, how I’m doing.  Direct democracy: It’s awe-inspiring. True for rural Michigan as well.

That’s what Ontonagon County is, rural, the second-least populous and third-largest by area. At the U.P.’s far end, the 5,800 residents (2018 estimate) deserve affirmation. In the most recent general election, county-wide turnout (59%) exceeded the state’s (57.5%).  Bohemia Township’s was 94%.  Five local libraries. Twenty churches.  Robust local history museum.  Annual Labor Day parade. Much civic pride.

By contrast, per capita income is 44th among 83 counties. Unemployment rate is 78th. Population fell from 2000-2010 by 13% and is half that of 1920.  More than a quarter are age 65 and older; one in seven residents is under 18, the same rate who fall below the poverty line.  Government land ownership is nearly 40%.  Largest employer: Aspirus Ontonagon Hospital.  Nearest State partner: Porcupine Mountains Wilderness Park – Michigan’s largest. 

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Is the principal need of an Ontonagonite less local government? Driving distance to Lansing approximates that from Detroit to Washington, D.C.; imagine Detroiters handing their destiny over to faraway Feds? LOL. Rather, the State having to force itself to include the U.P. on official publications (Act 147 of 2009) betrays typical myopia: out of sight, out of mind.

The local chamber of commerce opines: “As more and more tourists discover Ontonagon County, opportunities exist for tourism-related business development in the region.” Is Lansing actively doing enough to help tourists make that discovery, all year long? The chamber asks: “Today, you can do business from anywhere in the world—why not Ontonagon County?” Is State government asking itself: “how think creatively about boosting business there?” Like …

— Holding a Cabinet meeting in the County courthouse to put big boots on the ground

— Incentivizing a major e-commerce employer to set up a sustainable operation independent from natural resource extraction 

— Opening a year-round programmed State Park visitor center in Ontonagon village; that near the park entrance is closed half the year

That Dome column favors knocking down political silos. Start the job with Lansing: Bring all of State government to bear in solving U.P. needs. 

Jack Dempsey is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Charter Township of Plymouth, retired lawyer, and former president of the Michigan Historical Commission. He has authorship in six books about Michigan’s heritage and can be reached at [email protected]  

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