By Maurita Holland
When Roger Chard steps onto the stage to sing and I take the piano bench in southeastern Michigan, the audience generally numbers in the hundreds.
This month, we will perform in my hometown, Manistique, for about 30 people. The attendees, enticed by the promise of Swedish desserts and coffee, along with an evening of song, will attend the concert to raise money for Manistique’s newest nonprofit, the Lake Effects Arts Center. LEAC, which includes a small art gallery on the harbor in Manistique, offers classes in bead jewelry, rosemaling (Norwegian for "decorative painting"), watercolors and stained glass.
In a town hard-pressed for jobs -- which recently almost lost its major employer, Manistique Papers -- finding resources to start new ventures and to spark citizen enthusiasm is difficult. But Manistique is proving that an almost 40 percent decline of population in 50 years doesn’t have to signal the end of the community. Signs of hope, in fact, are everywhere:
A new hospital is under construction. While no babies will be born there -- residents must drive either 60 miles to Escanaba or 100 miles to Marquette for obstetrical care -- the medical facility will provide state-of-the-art equipment for joint replacements, cardiac rehab and general medicine when it opens early next year.
Business is picking up. A recent Michigan Technological University graduate student formed a company to manufacture a portable solar unit appropriate for hunting camps or running a couple of appliances or lights during a power outage.
The Mackinaw Trail Winery, situated in the picturesque harbor, draws tourists and townspeople to its tasting room and outdoor live music. Its Michigan grapes become fine whites and reds along with a host of fruit-flavored wines.
A local artisan canoes into beaver hut areas, retrieving wood, with which he makes furniture.
His work is featured in national arts and craft shows as is that of his wife, a talented fiber artist.
Telecommuting is under way. An IBM employee, tired of life in Chicago, moved to the shores of Indian Lake and telecommutes to work every day. Elsewhere, visitors and residents alike conduct their work and business via the internet while enjoying the quiet north woods and many clear lakes.
Young retirees are adding support and skills. A retired couple from Ann Arbor built a home near the Seul Choix lighthouse along Lake Michigan. One half, a retired school principal, serves on the Manistique Public Schools Board; the other half, a retired ombudsperson, was elected township supervisor and chair of the hospital board.
When the Manistique Area Schools’ budget was cut, an experienced, retired coach moving back to the area volunteered to help coach football and a vocal music teacher established a singing group as a high school club activity.
Community collaborations generate vitality. The Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians hired a community organizer for its Strategic Alliance for Health, who has been instrumental in working with the city manager and citizens to assess needs, write grants, and secure funding for community projects. The result? Manistique participates in Safe Routes to School funding and was named a Michigan "Community for a Lifetime" in recognition of its efforts to become a more aging-friendly town.
Last year its new Farmers’ Market won funding for colorful tents and signage. It now draws hundreds of people to the Wednesday sale. An ongoing study measures its impact on the economy.
Manistique is as vulnerable to high unemployment and lack of jobs as any other Upper Peninsula community. What may set it apart is its recognition that healthy living, volunteerism and creativity are important pillars that assure a vibrant community and invite its citizens -- past, present and prospective -- to grow in Manistique.