Upper Peninsula population plummets. One family’s struggle shows why.
Where are all the Yoopers going?
Since 2010, 14 of the 15 counties in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula have lost population. One of every eight people who lived in Ontonagon County in 2010 are now gone. Check out how your county’s population trend compares.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
LUCE COUNTY – The calls from his sister are the hardest.
“She lives in Mobile, Alabama,” said Dave Frohriep. “She’s putting pictures on Facebook all the time of them out playing in the sand, and out fishing, and their house is beautiful and they’re always going out to dinner, going out to movies.
“They have the life we used to have.”
Dave, 40 and his wife Sherri Frohriep, 46, live in rural Luce County in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. They’ve been unemployed for more than a year. Their electricity was turned off for a few weeks this summer.
“We used to be able to say, let’s go to a movie, and not worry about whether we had the money for it,” Dave Frohriep said. “Now we’re the lowest we’ve ever been, it just feels like it’s going to get worse.”
With no jobs for them and few opportunities for their teen-aged children, the Frohrieps are thinking of leaving Michigan.
“Michigan has definitely been left behind,” Dave Frohriep said. “I think we can make a better life somewhere else.”
The Upper Peninsula is losing population at a startling rate. Since 2010, 14 of the U.P.’s 15 counties suffered population declines. Ontonagon County near the Wisconsin border lost one in eight residents since 2010, and one in every four residents since 2000.
The U.P. has always been sparsely populated, but the number of permanent residents remained fairly steady from 1930 to 2010. The 2016 total population estimate of 302,981 is the lowest since the beginning of the 20th century.
The population decline is a result of an aging population and a struggle to maintain and attract good jobs to the beautiful but isolated region, said Caralee Swanberg of the Lake Superior Community Partnership, the economic development agency for Marquette, Dickinson and Baraga Counties.
“The economy here has always been a sticks and stones economy – timber and mining,” Swanberg said. When those industries are in a downturn (such as with the recent closing of the Empire Mine, in Marquette County), the U.P. economy suffers.
The region, which has one third of the state’s land but only 3 percent of its population, has trouble keeping its young adults. Many leave for college, and even if they want to make a life in the U.P., there are few jobs for those with degrees. “We have trouble retaining the 25-40 (year-olds),” Swanberg said.
The UP’s unemployment rate was 6.2 percent in July, compared to 3.7 percent for the state of Michigan as a whole. State officials acknowledge that those numbers are suppressed by a large number of residents who have simply given up on finding jobs.
The Michigan Economic Development Corporation offers economic incentives for companies based in the Upper Peninsula to expand. “It’s easier to retain a company than attract a company,” Swanberg said.
Luce County, where the Frohrieps live, lost 4 percent of its population since 2010.
The Frohrieps are participating in a year-long project following families with different political views from different parts of the state, to try to better understand the bubbles in which many of us live.
Those in comfortable jobs in the Lower Peninsula who visit the U.P. for vacations “don’t have a clue” about how tough life can be for year-round residents, said Sherri Frohriep.
“We used to have a fair that came to Newberry every spring, now it’s gone,” Sherri Frohriep said. “The bowling alley closed. The movie theatre is hanging on by a thread. You have to drive 60 miles to buy anything.”
“The tourists are taken care of a hell of a lot better than the residents,” Dave Frohriep said. “Things are dying here.”
So, the family is looking at its options. Sherri has family in Kentucky who can give them a place to stay until they get settled. They can do the same in Alabama with Dave’s sister, the life Dave described as a “fantasy world” compared to the U.P.
“I don’t ask for much. I could be in the middle of the woods, in a little shack, as long as I had a job and could make my rent, I’d be happy,” Dave Frohriep said. “But you’ve got to have something.
“We’re probably going to go,” he said. “There’s nothing here for us.”
We’ve been there for you with daily Michigan COVID-19 news; reporting on the emergence of the virus, daily numbers with our tracker and dashboard, exploding unemployment, and we finally were able to report on mass vaccine distribution. We report because the news impacts all of us. Will you please support our nonprofit newsroom?