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Northern Michigan, after years of struggle, is gaining residents again

Eagle Harbor Lighthouse in Michigan
The Eagle Harbor Lighthouse stands sentinel in Keweenaw County, which is statistically one of the fastest-growing counties in Michigan. The county of 2,100 in the Upper Peninsula has added nearly 200 people since 2020, part of a trend of small population gains in rural areas. (Shutterstock)
  • Rural northern Michigan again saw modest growth and remain a bright spot
  • Overall, Michigan added nearly 4,000 residents in 2023 as the population inched to 10,037,261 
  • West Michigan, especially Ottawa and Kent counties, lead the state in overall population gains

The population of rural and northern Michigan counties are slowly rising, even as residents continue to leave metro Detroit, according to U.S. census estimates released this week.

The data shows Michigan added nearly 4,000 residents in 2023, but the exodus from Wayne County continued: It lost 7,773 residents last year and 42,745 total since the 2020 Census.

That loss dwarfs the next largest, in neighboring Washtenaw County, which lost an estimated 968 residents between 2022 and 2023 and 6,722 since April 2020.


West Michigan continues to lead the state in growth, while counties like Keweenaw and Crawford are gaining residents in amounts that are small but significant after years of population declines.


The estimates were released amid ongoing debate by lawmakers and business leaders about the dismal growth rate of Michigan’s population.

Since 1990, only West Virginia has gained residents at a slower clip, creating job shortages and demographic hurdles for Michigan’s long-term economy and quality-of-life.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has made growing the state a focus of her administration.

She created a commission to make Michigan more attractive. Among its suggestions were creating “regional innovation districts” to attract and retain talented people; removing barriers to expanding or starting a business; improving economic and workforce development programs to align with knowledge-based jobs and creating a public-private “evergreen” fund that would invest in high-wage, promising industries like electric vehicles and health care.

The commission faces a tall task. Michigan was the only state to lose population from 2000 to 2010 and growth last decade was minimal.

Now, despite a gain in 2023, the state’s estimated population of 10,037,261  is 40,000 less than it was in 2020.

All told, the state’s three most populous counties, where 39% of the state lives, have lost over 52,800 residents since 2020 and 7,500 in the past year. 

In addition to losses in Wayne County, the home of Detroit:

  • Oakland lost nearly 600 in the past year and nearly 4,000 since 2020.
  • Macomb gained slightly from 2022 to 2023, adding an estimated 866 people. Since 2020 it has lost over 6,100.

Much of west Michigan and rural northern Michigan, in contrast, are experiencing population gains. 

Ottawa and Kent counties added over 2,400 people each in the past year, with Ottawa gaining nearly 7,200 since 2020 and Kent nearly 3,400.

Driving the gains in west Michigan are two positive factors: movers from other counties and states and having more births than deaths.

Families in Ottawa, the state’s fastest-growing county from 2010 to 2020, have had 2,200 more births than deaths since 2020. The county has attracted nearly 4,200 residents from other counties and states and 633 from abroad.


In Kent County, home to Grand Rapids, the baby boom is even bigger: 8,400 more births than deaths since 2020. It 9,400 residents to other counties and states — other data shows many headed to neighboring Ottawa County — but attracted nearly 4,000 from abroad.

Domestic migration — folks moving within the country — is part of the reason northern Michigan is adding residents.

In many of those counties, deaths exceed births. But moves into the counties from elsewhere are driving modest gains.

The biggest percentage gains among counties since 2020:

  • Keweenaw, 6.1%
  • Montmorency, 5.7%
  • Lake, 5.3%
  • Crawford, 4.2%
  • Antrim, 4.2%

The biggest percentage drops since 2020:

  • Wayne, -2.4%
  • Menominee,  -2.4%
  • Lenawee County, -1.9%
  • Washtenaw, -1.8%
  • Huron, -1.5%

The biggest real gains since 2020:

  • Ottawa, 7,169
  • Kent, 3,377
  • Livingston, 2,896
  • Muskegon,1,828
  • Montcalm, 1,550

The biggest real drops since 2020:

  • Wayne, -42,745
  • Washtenaw, -6,722
  • Macomb, -6,113
  • Genesee, -4,695
  • Oakland, -3,976

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