Fighting to maintain life on Michigan’s island communities

Straits of Mackinac

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

When you open eyes, you realize many of the same issues challenge 14 inhabited islands around the Great Lakes, with a few other obstacles unique only to islands.  Some 70 participants met late in September to listen and exchange ideas for the first ever Islands Summit, “Laying the Foundation for a Great Lakes Islands Coalition.

Elected officials, managers and school superintendents came from some of largest islands ‒ Mackinac Island, Drummond, Manitoulin (Ontario) and Les Cheneaux (Cedarville and Hessel) to the smallest ‒ Middle and South Bass Islands (Lake Erie), Harsens Island (St. Clair River) and Pelee Island between Ontario and Ohio.

Ken Winter is 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 Central Michigan College in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

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 20-member staff supports sustainable coastal communities, restoration of degraded waters, water quality and quantity and prevention of aquatic invasive species.

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

Jon Allan, a 2012 governor-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 Co. 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-chair the Governor's Blue Ribbon Parks Commission.

“We were surprised by the number who came,” Allan said. “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 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 coastline. Its 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 are still dealing with declining property values that have not recovered from the 2008 recession. 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, which serves 450 residents in the winter and then gets record-breaking numbers during the height of the summer season.

“We have to gear up, we are dealing with two different times,” says Mackinac Mayor Margaret Doud.

Others like Clark Township supervisor Mark Clymer find themselves dealing with invasive weeds that are now choking waterways, including around the Les Cheneaux Islands, clogging boat motors and propellers. In an area where the economy is mostly tourism-based, Clymer said affordable housing for seasonal workers is non-existent after what had been available gets taken by students enrolled in its boat and culinary schools.

Beaver Island School Board President Susan Myers echoes many island school districts’ concerns, which include declining enrollment because few younger families live on islands for lack of good paying jobs. Her district has dropped to 47 students. Others have closed high schools and are sending students to mainland schools that come with high transportations costs.

Harold Stieber of Harsens Island says his small island has no hotels, gas stations or stores, and an aging population that has dropped from 3,000 to 1,147 residents since the 1920s, with 50 percent going to Florida in the winter. Located at the mouth of the St. Clair River, the residents are not excited about change.

“We have a lot of transit 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 foothold.  One islander says they’re trying to figure out how to get rid of 400 abandoned cars left on the island.

Attendees are looking at how they can establish communication among one another and establish a stronger political voice working together to lobby state and federal lawmakers for sorely needed funds.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission.

If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron FrenchClick here for details and submission guidelines.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Tue, 10/10/2017 - 8:15am

Isn't the reason for living on an island (or the UP for that matter), the isolation and the "camping"or problem solving frame of mind? What's next "The inconveniences of tent living" or "The hassles of vegetable gardening" ?

Lora Stevens
Tue, 10/10/2017 - 2:16pm

For all the natives on these island it is a way of life and they don't complain much. But population of the aging is a big problem everywhere. We take better care of our inmates then we do our Seniors. The island seniors want to live out their last years where they grew up and is HOME to them. Most have to be removed to the mainland to facilities to live out their last days and most don't live long being taken from their homes. Affordable housing is not just for the low income, but our aging population, they need places to live on what little they have coming in. For this fishing villages most never paid into Social Security and have NO money to live off of when they can't physically work anymore. I know the argument that they knew that when they didn't pay in, but did they really understand what happens when you get old and family have moved away are you are with few friends left around you that need their own help?! We need to review our ageing population and their needs, as we are all going to be there soon enough.

Tue, 10/10/2017 - 9:31pm

I may sound a bit harsh, but why aren't we talking about what the elderly [how ever we define that] can and are doing for themselves? The over 100 is the fast growing part of the population, and many are living on their own why aren't we trying to figure why and how they are doing that?
Before 'we need to review our ageing populations' why not try to find out what is working and why so we don't end up throwing away what people are doing right? Why not try to help people understand what they need to do today so when the are 'elderly' they will have choice and not have to rely on the 'good intentions' of others?

Nancy Brimhall
Tue, 10/10/2017 - 11:35pm

Let's see if I understand. Taxpayer money being used to instruct local officials on how to access taxpayer money to support people living in economically unsupportable locations. People have to relocate for all sorts of reasons and of course, it's painful. But dealing with reality is necessary. And taxpayers have a lot of other priorities that would benefit a lot more of the population.

Wed, 10/11/2017 - 10:07am

Why did you not mention Drummond Island,????

John Saari
Sun, 10/15/2017 - 7:41am

Watch "The Boonies" Living Off The Grid is a lifestyle choice.