Rural Michigan to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer: What about us?

au sable

The Au Sable Light Station, on the Lake Superior shore of the Upper Peninsula, is in a large swath of Michigan that rural leaders say needs more attention. (Shutterstock image)

Advocates for rural Michigan are imploring Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to create a Cabinet-level post to focus attention on the least populated swaths of the state.

One day after the first-term Democrat offered her State of the State, a coalition of groups held a news conference Thursday to draw attention to population losses, diminished health care and other challenges in rural Michigan.

“While many of Michigan’s urban and suburban areas are faring well under current economic growth, the economic and social conditions of Michigan’s rural communities remain dauntingly behind,” said Marty Fittante, CEO of InvestUP and co-chairman of the Rural Affairs and Development Coalition.

The coalition of nonprofits and other groups represents residents of 59 counties (out of 83) where nearly one-fifth of the state’s population resides.

Advocates contend special attention is needed to help that huge swath of the state, which is battling higher rates of migration and population loss and higher rates of depression and suicide while rural health systems are under pressure to merge or close.


The coalition has had informal talks with the governor’s office about its request, members said during Thursday’s press conference. 

Whitmer's office said she has no intention of creating another Cabinet position but has unveiled many measures to "meet the concerns of Michiganders who live in rural Michigan," a spokesman, Bobby Leddy, told Bridge Magazine on Friday.

"She has led on improving education and skills training, creating more good-paying jobs, making health care more affordable and accessible, and combating the opioid epidemic," Leddy wrote in an email. "She introduced Michigan Reconnect to ensure that Michiganders have a tuition-free pathway to the skills they need for the jobs of today and tomorrow. She fought for a weighted foundation formula and tripled the number of literacy coaches to improve the education outcomes in schools. She called on the legislature to codify the Affordable Care Act into law to protect it against Republican attacks. And she formed the Michigan Opioids Task Force, which has made recommendations for prevention and treatment."

Rural Michigan has been beset by a range of issues over the last decade, problems exhaustively covered in Bridge. 

Many tourist areas have trouble keeping workers because of housing costs are too high; other areas cannot find enough workers. It also has higher rates of disability and opioid addiction.

Largely agricultural and sparsely populated, rural Michigan stretches from the Ohio border to the Upper Peninsula. It includes relatively wealthy areas like Traverse City and poorer areas with few people and employers.

The regions are diverse geographically but are yet similar –  their populations are among the oldest, whitest and least educated in the state. There are few community colleges or universities and migration out of those areas are the highest in the state.

Many have seen the population age substantially –  Michigan has the highest number of counties nationwide where the median age is 50 or higher. In many of those counties, there are more deaths each year than births.


That means there are fewer working-age people. Even in Traverse City, which is growing as its assets continue to draw both visitors and full-time residents, is facing challenges.

Warren Call, president and CEO of Traverse Connect, which promotes business in the tourist city and its region, said the area is losing residents who are 35 to 49 years old.

“It’s a hollowing out of our community,” he said.

If Michigan created a cabinet level post, it’d be the first in the nation, though other states have created offices that focus on rural affairs. 

Michigan invests $110 million per year in its state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, but that largely focuses on agriculture.

Coalition members splitting the agriculture department from rural development –  and elevating the latter to the cabinet – would cost $2.5 million. They declined to say how much actual policy changes that favor rural areas could cost. 

“We think the [Whitmer] administration is in a better position to decide where the opportunities are and the cost,” Fittante said.

During the budget standoff late last year, Whitmer feuded with Republican legislators and vetoed a number of items in rural GOP districts, sparking outrage.

Most of those cuts were reversed, but questions about equity remain. One day after Whitmer announced $3.5 billion in roads funding on Wednesday, some Republican leaders complained too many projects were steered to southeast Michigan, where half the state’s population resides.

Editor's note: This article was updated Friday, Jan. 31, to include a comment from Gretchen Whitmer's staff.

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Fri, 01/31/2020 - 7:01am

Rural Michigan doesn't need cabinet-level representation. It already has state senators and representatives who are paid a lot and do little. That's especially true if they're like those who represent the Traverse Bay region - who do nothing but claim credit for initiatives undertaken by others and are of no practical benefit .

Fri, 01/31/2020 - 8:31am

Face it to the Democratic party, rural county folk are nothing but a bunch of fat, old, gun toting, Bible thumping, bitter clinging, deplorable Trumpers. Nothing new, as has been outright stated by Obama and H Clinton in their honest moments and Whitmer by her actions. Not that Republican party doesn't have its issues with seeing over- educated, Urban metro-sexual entitled snowflake Bernie Bros. But truly there's very little cultural and value overlap between country and urban mindsets. Not that this is 100% , although cities are closer. Maybe this is the argument for backing off the state's powers and providing local communities and counties the latitude and funding mechanisms and flexibility to address their own perceived needs and priorities? Toughest part is forcing relinquishment of powers.

Fri, 01/31/2020 - 10:54am

For decades, “rural county folks” have voted for GOP politicians who enacted tax cuts for the wealthy that have deprived the state of the money it needs to fix the the problems now faced by our rural counties.

middle of the mit
Fri, 01/31/2020 - 10:10pm

Matt, could you tell us what the Republican party has done for the hinterlands? Nothing. Nothing at all except offer up the cities and immigrants and blacks as a catch all to the problems of rural America.

Even when the people up here KNOW that tourism from city dwellers and out of staters is What keeps us going. And after decades of beating down on labor unions and auto workers, we don't have the tourist base we used to have. Again, Mary Bara and Bill Ford don't vacation in everytown Northern Michigan. But the employees used to.

And the Republican politicians up here haven't been doing us any favors pitting us against those who spend their money up here.

Here is what Mike Shirkey told rural America.

And here is a link to how Wayne and metro counties are already subsidizing rural MI.

And yes there are various cultural and value gaps between us, but they aren't unbridgeable. We all really want the same thing, a decent job that will pay good enough to provide to raise a family. The biggest problem with Northern Mi is that we don't have the jobs to provide for everyone that is born and graduates here. Most of our graduates leave here for better economic opportunities in the cities. That is why you, Duane and Kevin will NEVER leave the cities until you are ready to retire. And that is why Northern Michigan population is growing older. And why it always has been. Those that are willing and able to stay up here do and they sacrifice better wages for less population. And those that leave are replaced by retirees.

We don't really want Northern Michigan to become a city. It would take away from the draw and appeal. Even though a few weeks out of the year are towns do become cities.

If not for Republican recalcitrancy telling us that those with less are somehow subsidizing those who have more, there wouldn't be a divide. Our towns up here are completely dependent upon how many people vacation here. That is something that conservatives find anathema to their political ideology. Sorry, it is fact. If we tried to be independent? You would see our towns disintegrate and only those that have big lakes or big rivers would survive.

As for townships and local control? Again you need to look at how conservatives govern. They don't like control unless they are in control. Look no further to what Republican states do to liberal cities. They pass laws that locals can't do what the State doesn't want them to do. Also, there are differences up here between townships that one township would never pass laws that others would, and if it's one size fits all government, aren't you getting closer to central planning than you would like?

There was a proposal by a group in my county to do just that. If failed miserably.

Mon, 02/03/2020 - 1:53pm

As usual your posts are firehose of scattered thoughts, so picking just one, what is it that you propose be done to address your perception of the lack of economic opportunity in the north and other small towns far from bigger cites and logistical resources? Other than the tried and true 100,000-year-old solution ... Move to better opportunity (as my ancestors did). Just curious. Interestingly the areas with the highest economic growth and dynamism seem to always be full of new arrivals, chicken or egg?

middle of the mit
Wed, 02/05/2020 - 1:26am

Well Matt, I am trying something new this year. Instead of being a troll and beating back your talking points, I am just going to let you try to defend them.

Scattered thoughts? They were specific responses to your not very well thought out talking points.

If I remember right and I have your post to prove what I was trying to say, you tried to tell us that our State and Federal Government should be run like Republicans tell us they want things to be run. Yet here is what you replied:

[[[["what is it that you propose be done to address your perception of the lack of economic opportunity in the north and other small towns far from bigger cites and logistical resources? Other than the tried and true 100,000-year-old solution ... Move to better opportunity (as my ancestors did)."]]]

But aren't those the liberal taxholes you republicans are always complaining about? Why don't you answer this question? Why don't you move to where conservative economics is sacrosanct, you know, Kansas, Arkansas, Mississippi?

[[[. Just curious. Interestingly the areas with the highest economic growth and dynamism seem to always be full of new arrivals, chicken or egg?]]]

And they ALL happen to be liberal taxholes. Thank you for making my point for me!

And if your ancestors moved here for better economic opportunity, why do you despise and refuse to help those who are just looking to do the same?

Once again, thank you for making my point for me!

And as far as helping economic opportunity up here? It comes from those who earn wages down there or from wherever the cities are and then they go to vacation to get away from the rat race. And they spend their money there. They buy second houses and vacation and that improves the lot of those of us up here.

Giving bonuses and multimillion dollar wages to CEO's doesn't do that. Once again, Mary Bara nor Bill Ford vacation in any town Northern Michigan except maybe Mackinaw Island.

Giving tax breaks to businesses has very little effect up here. But I will bet Republican legislators KNOW that.

Once again, thank you for telling all the readers that it is liberal taxholes that are the economic engine. Invest in the cities, and then they invest in the rest.

Is that such a hard concept to understand?

Rural Gubmint S...
Sat, 02/01/2020 - 3:21pm

Where's our emergency relief, Gubner? The lakes are rising?

Prof Ken Kolk
Sat, 02/01/2020 - 10:46pm

You are right about about the rural areas of the state being ignored. But it not because of the Democratic Party has a stereotype of our rural population as being “nothing but a bunch of fat, old, gun toting, Bible thumping, bitter, clinging, deplorable Trumpers.” Except you have the party wrong. Having spent time working with and for the leadership of both Parties, I can tell you that the Billionaires [Dick Jr. and Betsy De Vos] who own the Michigan Republican Party and their multi-millionaire supporters actually look at the rural population of our state exactly that way.

The GOP has controlled the Legislature for nearly 30 years. It is the Legislature who decides what state taxes will be, what will be taxed what will not be taxed, where our tax money wii be spent and where state spending will be cut. The GOP Legislature has kept the two Democratic governors from being able to carry out any of their reforms to help our struggling rural counties.

The GOP has relied on rural voters being reliable single issue voters [using a number of supposed support for different issues that attract these voters — claiming to be “pro-life, pro-gun, anti-tax to fool them] who’ll vote straight GOP and keep them in power.

If the struggling rural voters actually would like the State to help them by funding road construction, giving tax breaks to farmers that agree to not sell rich farm land for “development”, to fund the real public schools that have voter elected school boards with enough money for them to be able again to offer a quality education to kids in rural schools, to fund rural hospitals to help them stay open. Then they will have to stop being Trumpers, show that they can’t be taken for granted, vote out long time Federal Representatives who vote to cut programs that are helping our rural counties [cutting food programs, trying to cut Medicaid again, voting to end the Affordable Care Act and allow health insurance companies to deny health insurance for “pre-existing conditions”! These Congressmen aren’t Democrats!

Wake up Matt, when has one of our Republican leaders expanded a program the has helped rural Michigan? How many times have they passed low that helped rich businesses pollute, destroy our farm land, and not pay their fair share? If Michigan’s rural voters believe these Republican lies and keep being voters that will always vote for them thing won’t get better for rural Michigan, only worse! A politician doesn’t care about our concerns unless ignoring them will cost him the next election.

Mon, 02/03/2020 - 8:32am

Prof, MOM et al, What none of you understand is that the mindset you deplore is not interested in what you, living in your ivory towers, big cities, Lansing or Washington or other La La lands can do for them. They don't trust you or your damn programs. They've seen them and don't like what they see. And they're not losing sleep over that someone has a private jet and they don't!

Sat, 02/22/2020 - 5:24pm

Well then don’t ask for help. You elect “small government” Republicans and then whine about not getting enough “help” from the government. The disconnect there is amazing.

Sun, 02/23/2020 - 12:45am

Well, Ken, I'll take on some of your points. Starting at the end of your post, our Democratic governor and attorney general certainly aren't doing the UP any favors by fighting to shut down Line 5, which is critical to the rural population of the UP. We need the propane that comes from Line 5, because, unlike urban areas, there are no viable alternatives in many areas. I live in a subdivision immediately adjacent to one of the mid-sized cities in the UP, but even with the fairly dense population in our neighborhood we only got natural gas service within the last 20 years. Go a mile or two beyond our neighborhood and propane or wood are the most common heat source since electricity is very expensive in most areas. But instead of letting Enbridge move ahead with building the tunnel that would protect our Great Lakes from a spill in the Straits of Mackinac, the governor and AG waste time and tax dollars fighting the Line 5 tunnel even though the courts so far have ruled in Enbridge's favor. Meanwhile, nothing is being done to address the risks that Democratic politicians say they are so worried about.

Here's another counterpoint. Those farmers who sell "rich farmland" typically do so because it is nearly impossible to make a living farming unless you can afford to "go big." In rural areas that lack infrastructure (municipal water, sewer, natural gas, etc,), it's often impossible to sell land for "development" anyway. Family farms are a romantic ideal in this day and age. I wish it weren't so -- I grew up on a family farm, and I hate to see that lifestyle fade away, but the truth is few can make a living farming anymore.

I do not agree with everything that the Snyder administration and the Republican-controlled legislature did in the eight years that Snyder was governor, but for the first time in years Michigan finally addressed budgetary issues that had been ignored by at least three previous administrations (Democrats and Republications alike). Yes, the nationwide economic recovery helped, but we finally got away from the shell game that previous administrations played in order to maintain the illusion of fiscal responsibility. As an example, I have been on our local rural school board for over 15 years, and we are in far better financial shape now than we were before Rick Snyder took office. But now our Democratic governor is proposing to depart from the 2x formula that has been in place for many years to try to bring parity to the school aid formula, and she publicly flaunts the third-grade reading law, while also claiming that "no one is above the law" when referring to President Trump (whom I consider to be morally bankrupt, BTW).

Bottom line: there is plenty of blame to go around regarding our economic and environmental issues in rural areas, and simply pointing fingers at Republicans is not accomplishing anything. Can we please stop playing the blame game and start working together to find some solutions?

David Waymire
Fri, 01/31/2020 - 9:05am

It would be very useful if the state would do a study that shows how much each county contributes to the state's budget, and how much they get back. Studies of how the state spends on roads shows on a per-resident basis, rural communities are getting far more back than they put in -- even though leaders of those communities argue the opposite.

C. Fountain
Fri, 01/31/2020 - 10:08am

Contact your Senate and House Representatives. They were elected for this very reason, it is THEIR job to work for us, nothing has happened the last eight years ask them to work with or Governor to help us instead of constantly tying her hands. Ask them for their plans.

Mike Ruddy
Sat, 02/01/2020 - 10:11am

If rural residents have a problem with representation, maybe they should address this with the local Republican representatives they have been voting for for the last 50 years. Your priorities take second place to Republican tax brakes, loosening gun laws and promoting religious freedoms that are already protected by the Constitution.

Sat, 02/01/2020 - 7:31pm

I've lived in northern rural Michigan for over 25 years. Our problems of our own making,

We're conservative, very conservative. We don't like to spend money on public services, particularly schools, addiction rehab services and recreation. We abhor Obamacare and all other social services that help anyone but the old. We love Medicare, Social Security and even Medicaid when it pays for our long term care costs, nursing homes.

Crime is down. Population is down, particularly under 40 population, but we rarely object to the cost of building bigger very expensive jails.

We could try catering to the needs of the young and make an effort to keep them here. But, why bother? Instead, let's whine in Lansing.

Vince Caruso
Sun, 02/02/2020 - 11:33am

Rural Michigan does need help and it may be on the way, in the sky.
Musk's StarLink is planning to go into operation later this year with huge effects on rural communities in the US, and later beyond.
High-speed internet access, promised to be, cost-competitive as in urban areas.
This could have huge effects in rural areas that have had trouble getting good internet access.
Many with good internet work from home and just about anywhere which is a great equalizer.
Yes, rural Michigan needs and deserves more state help but StarLink may be private help that the state is unable or unwilling to provide that could change the face of rural Michigan forever.
The other is in the form of renewable energy. Put a windmill or solar on your farm or rural land, keep farming and kids on the farm with the $50k to $80k you can make from just the renewable energy you generate. Later down the road you can make, store and sell Renewable Hydrogen to the tanker truck who will be by to collect and pay for it. Don't let the old "conservative" guard tell you don't need to generate renewable energy like they tried in Kansas, now one of the largest wind-based energy producers in the US, and growing fast.

Wed, 02/05/2020 - 8:52am

To Vince: I'll believe it when I see it. Private investment doesnt happen in rural areas because they can't make money with scarce populations. Pay people to move closer to towns that already have schools, hospitals and services people want. New Orleans did that after Katrina. Create towns where young people want to live because the jobs are there.

Wed, 02/19/2020 - 10:55am

Reliable broadband would make a big economic difference in rural areas.
StarLink, 5G and AT&T AirGig are all under development and could all improve broadband access in rural areas.

The problem so far with broadband in rural areas is that few local governments (counties, townships, cities and villages) have taken the initiative to fix the problem. Fiber to the premises and fixed tower wireless is doable pretty much everywhere, but would have to be built with tax dollars and probably supplemented with tax dollars. Rural areas want broadband but are unwilling to pay for it.