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Jobs get even scarcer in rural Michigan

North of Grand Rapids, residents of Montcalm County know better than most what tough times in rural Michigan can mean.

In 2006 – despite a massive push by state and local officials to prevent it – Electrolux closed its manufacturing plant in the small city of Greenville, costing 2,700 jobs. The firm shifted much of its production to Mexico, where workers would be paid about $1.57 an hour.

SLIDESHOW:Best counties for total jobs added (2005 - 2013)

SLIDESHOW:Worst counties for total jobs added (2005 - 2013)

Hopes lifted with the announcement that same year of plans to build six solar panel manufacturing facilities in Greenville, projected to add 1,200 jobs. But in 2012, United Solar Ovanic and its parent company filed for bankruptcy, costing about 200 jobs in Greenville and ending operations there. At its peak, the facilities employed fewer than 500.

The county's struggles are further confirmed in a statewide comparison of percentage of job loss among Michigan counties from 2005 to 2013.

Montcalm County was third worst in the state in that period - its 15,082 jobs in 2013 were nearly 20 percent below its number of jobs in 2005. Things were even tougher in sparsely populated Ontonagon County, at the west end of the Upper Peninsula, which lost 40.5 percent of its jobs from 2005 to 2013, the highest percentage loss in the state.

The bottom 10 list is comprised entirely of rural counties, nine scattered across the Lower Peninsula. And while these counties generate just a sliver of Michigan's GPD, that doesn't diminish the very real economic pain felt in those communities.

Their difficulties mirror national trends in much of rural America.

According to analysis based on U.S. Census data by the United States Department of Agriculture, the Great Recession had similar effects on rural and urban areas, as both areas experienced a drop of about 5 percent in employment in 2008 and 2009.

But in the year between the second quarter of 2011 and second quarter of 2012, employment grew by just .5 percent in rural areas, compared with 1.6 percent in urban areas. In the following year, employment grew by 1.4 percent in urban areas, while it fell by .1 percent in rural areas.

In another report released this year, the U.S.D.A. noted that population declined in 2014 in U.S. rural counties for the fourth year in a row, as more people migrated to metropolitan areas in search of jobs.

Michigan State University Economist Charles Ballard attributes some of that to a desire by some rural residents to keep things as they are, adding: “That is why some folks in rural areas are ambivalent about job growth. On the one hand, all else equal, they would like to see more jobs, but they are also eager to preserve some of the aspects of life that make rural communities special.”

Ballard also noted that some non-metropolitan counties like Grand Traverse and Leelanau have done “pretty well economically” because of economies that lean on tourism and as a home for affluent retirees. Leelanau County gained 10.2 percent more jobs from 2005 to 2013, while Grand Traverse gained 1.6 percent. (Though Bridge has reported that overall job numbers in this tourism-heavy region can mask the economic struggles for year-around residents cobbling together a living.)

George Erickcek, an economic analyst for the Kalamazoo-based Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said rural counties can be particularly vulnerable to plant closings.

“I wouldn't call them one-employee towns,” Erickcek said. “But they do have a high concentration of workers with just a few employers. If those firms do go, they have quite the multiplier effect. The grocery store, the dentist may have to go.”

Erickcek said that rural counties, which once competed for employers with a lower wage base, have lost that competitive advantage as manufacturing wages and union representation have fallen elsewhere. Their geographic isolation, which raises transportation costs, makes it harder to attract employers, he said.

“Many of these places are hard to get to. It's unclear to a company why you would want to go there.”

SLIDESHOW:Best counties for job growth (2005 - 2013)

SLIDESHOW:Worst counties for job growth (2005 - 2013)

In Ontonagon County, the downward curve was accelerated by the closing in 1995 of the White Pine copper mine, which employed more than 3,000 workers at its peak in the 1970s.

It lost 13 percent of its population from 2000 to 2010, falling from 7,818 to 6,780. It fell another 7 percent by 2013, to an estimated population of 6,322.

In 2009, just before Christmas, officials at the Smurfit-Stone Container Company announced they were closing the paper mill in the village of Ontonagon by year's end, a decision that would end 182 jobs. The mill was once the county's largest employer.

Village president Scott Frazer, quoted at the time in Houghton's Daily Mining Gazette, said the closure would force some to leave the area.

“Something like this is to be treated as a new beginning or the beginning of the end,” Frazer said.

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