Two Michigans gaze across a widening gap

First of two parts

Pure Michigan is shining under bright sunlight on this cold winter day. On the slopes of Boyne Mountain, skiers and snowboarders carve their way downhill. In the nearby Gaslight District of Petoskey, servers steam milk for lattes or pour craft beers with winking names like Trophy Wife Blonde or Cabin Fever. It’s the slow season for sure, but the Up North paradise at the tip of the lower peninsula still draws visitors and their bulging wallets.

A few miles away in Alanson, the Church of the Nazarene is about to open its doors for the weekly food distribution. Volunteers gather in a circle to pray before admitting those who’ve come for a box of donated groceries. The line has begun to wrap around the wall of the multipurpose room.

Pastor Catherine Greenhoe looks at the people in sweatpants and shabby overcoats, some holding laundry baskets to carry home their cans and boxes.

“It never seems to get shorter,” she sighs. “Just longer.”

On the shores of two Great Lakes, two Michigans are pulling away from one another. For one, graceful summer homes rise on waterfronts, equipped with boats, tubes and toys. For the other, life is lived in trailers on back roads, or small houses tucked into the woods. One comes north in May and enjoys a summer of festivals, fun and restaurant dining. The other Michigan lives here year-round and waits tables or changes hotel beds. One is, like the state at large, recovering from the recession and building wealth. The other slips deeper into, or closer to, poverty.

Three counties ‒ Charlevoix, Emmet and Cheboygan ‒ sit at the tip of Michigan’s mitten, looking out on glistening waters, looking in on a restless, largely invisible population still grappling with unsteady wages and the haunting sense that opportunity ‒ at least, for them ‒ has passed. Solutions do not come easily for thousands of such families, as they labor in the shadows of a tourism economy that comes out to play only a few months a year.

In this series, Bridge chronicles the journey of workers, business owners, students, families and community leaders in the three counties. In the process, we hope to look beyond the frustrations and traps of life on the margins and consider policies and programs, both inside and apart from government, that offer promise when working hard is not enough.

The view from above

Those at the top rank among the wealthiest in Michigan.

Median income for the top 5 percent of households in tourist- rich Charlevoix and Emmet counties is well above the average in the rest of the state, according to the Census Bureau. The poorest, those in the bottom 20 percent generally are faring better than their peers elsewhere in the state. But the gap between the top and the bottom, in Charlevoix, Emmet and Cheboygan County is among the widest in Michigan.

April Keller remembers when she was hired at American Spoon Foods 15 years ago. She was 25, had recently become a single mother, and was working as a cook at a bar/restaurant in the area. She was earning $6.75 an hour and worked nights and weekends, standard for restaurant work. When she was hired at American Spoon, a Petoskey-based purveyor of expensive jams and preserves, earning $9 an hour for regular daytime hours, no weekends, and year-round, she figured she’d lucked out.

“Prior to that I had entry-level jobs, worked for minimum wage, the kind of jobs you do when you don’t have a degree,” said Keller, who eventually worked her way up to co-managing production at American Spoon. That’s the way it is for people like her, she added; many in her extended family would be considered working poor, and simply expect seasonal jobs and regular layoffs.

“You have to do more than one (job) to get by,” she said.

A faster slide

In Charlevoix-Emmet-Cheboygan, more people are tumbling into poverty even years after the depth of the economic downturn. The conditions aren’t extreme when considered against the rest of Michigan ‒ in comparison, Emmet’s poverty rate is low and Charlevoix’s is average, though Cheboygan’s is far higher.

But poverty in Emmet and Charlevoix has grown faster than the average among all Michigan counties since 2009. The ratio of Emmet and Charlevoix families with children living in poverty increased by one-third in that four-year period. In Cheboygan, poverty had risen 10 percent by 2013 with 26 percent of families with children in poverty.

Seasonal Swings in Unemployment (2001-2014)

Hover over the graph to show data

And, as Keller well knows, seasonal work sometimes means no work at all ‒ the average March unemployment rate spikes to more than 18 percent in Cheboygan County, and to nearly 12 percent and 13 percent in Charlevoix and Emmet counties, respectively - stark reminder of why it’s called the “slow season.”

The three counties lost 3,603 jobs in manufacturing, construction and natural resources between 2000 and 2013, according to an analysis of federal Bureau of Labor Statistics supplied by Scott Gest, regional planner for Networks Northwest, a 10-county planning body. In the same period, 2,272 jobs were added in services, including 573 in leisure and hospitality, which are far more likely to be seasonal, he said, and by definition, part-time.

Manufacturing plants like Continental Structural Plastics in Petoskey and Dura Automotive in Antrim County closed in 2007 and 2008, respectively, taking with them 400 jobs. With few alternatives, idled workers either left the region for better prospects or fell into long-term unemployment or underemployment.

More ominous, the region could be facing a less robust economic future as young professionals look for work elsewhere. The Charlevoix-Emmet-Cheboygan region lost a staggering 22 percent of people in the coveted 25-44 age group between 2000 and 2013.

Justin Rashid, who founded American Spoon, the company that saved April Keller from the minimum-wage merry-go-round, said he understands why some people leave.

“When people lose a job in northern Michigan, they fall out of a treehouse – often they have to move,” he said. “It’s not, ‘I lost my job, I’m going to work at a different place across town,’ it’s ‘I lost my job, I’m going to Grand Rapids. Or Chicago.’”

Yet the solution is not always as simple as “just add jobs.”

Even as some workers leave, manufacturers like surgical instrument maker Precision Edge Inc. in Boyne City and DCL in Charlevoix, which makes dust control and loading systems, say they have good, well-paying jobs they can’t fill for lack of qualified skilled-trades employees.

Transportation can be another barrier to employment. For workers, particularly at the lower edge of middle-class wages, who live miles from their jobs, the cost of commuting can eat a large chunk of their budget. It is an especially critical obstacle in Emmet County, which lacks a robust transit system.

And looking into the future, children attending schools in the counties’ rural districts face twin obstacles ‒ poverty at home and tight budgets in the classroom ‒ as they study to meet the challenges of a competitive job market.

A view of the bay

In some sense, much of this is nothing new in a region of nearly 85,000 people spread out over more than 3,000 square miles. Resort areas have always had seasonal economies. Rural areas have always had fewer job opportunities. That’s the price residents pay for glorious summers by blue bays and the chance to be paddling a kayak down a river 15 minutes after punching out of work.

But with fewer year-round jobs available that allow a middle-class standard of living, the gap in these counties may only grow.

Consider, for example, the schools.

According to the Michigan Department of Education, rural Inland Lakes Schools in Cheboygan County spent about $8,500 per pupil in 2012-2013. About 20 miles due west, the more affluent Harbor Springs School District spent over $12,000 per pupil, allowing its students to learn in smaller classrooms, among other advantages.

About 60 percent of Inland Lakes students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a common measure of poverty, and the districts sends just over half its students to college. Harbor Springs’ poverty rate is half that of Inland Lakes; and Harbor Springs sends more than 8-in-10 of its students to college.

Glimmers of change

Still, amid economic challenge, there are some blueprints for progress, including some not so far away. Consider:

Just outside Onaway, a town of about 900 residents in Presque Isle County, Tom Moran, owner of Moran Iron Works, was having trouble finding qualified welders for his growing business in Cheboygan County. A custom fabrication firm, its recent contracts include a $4 million order from Shepler’s Ferry to build a new ferry to Mackinac Island and a $50 million project for Consumer’s Energy to build a greenhouse-gas reduction duct. “They’re just not teaching this in the schools,” he said.

So last year Moran spent more than $1 million to open the Industrial Arts Institute in Onaway, an all-day, 15-week training program that teaches all aspects of welding. Fifteen students graduated in November. All got jobs.

Networks Northwest, the planning body that includes Emmet and Charlevoix, is planning this year to launch a $3,000 scholarship skills training program for 25 high school students, largely funded by a $65,000 grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. It will combine high school career technical training with community college class work and internships with area employees.

The Northern Lakes Economic Alliance, a business support group based in Boyne City, operates a mobile computer-controlled machining training lab, with 12 work stations, that can be driven to companies to train employees and high schools to bring students into 21st-Century entry-level manufacturing jobs.

A few young professionals who left have returned, determined to forge a place in this region’s future. They include a former dance instructor who returned to buy a small bookstore in Harbor Springs, now flourishing, and a former ski racer and employee of the 2008 Obama campaign who came back to start an Internet business incubator.

At a crossroads

There is a common refrain among many of the young in this region: I like it here, but I may have to leave.

Danielle Wager, 30, was born and raised in Charlevoix, graduating from Charlevoix High School and Grand Valley State University with a degree in education. She was hired in 2007 to teach social studies at Charlevoix High School but was laid off in 2009 amid budget cuts.

The Charlevoix resident finally found work helping clients determine if they are eligible for welfare with the Michigan Department of Human Services, while her husband, Kreg, works as a child protective services specialist for the state. They have a daughter, Nila, 2, a mortgage and a tight budget on their $75,000 joint income.

“I have been looking for a teaching job ever since I was laid off,” Danielle Wager said. “We're at the point where we are thinking of leaving the area or leaving the state. It's just so hard to find a good-paying job here, especially for someone who has an education.

“We both grew up here. My husband is a big skier and snowmobiler. We love the small-town feel without being tiny.

“But,” she asked, “can we afford to stay?”

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Adrianne Reilly
Tue, 02/17/2015 - 7:29am
I like the solution of Tom Moran, who couldn't find qualified welders: Open up a welding school. Rather than lament the lack of qualified workers, he found an ingenious solution. Would that there were more entrepreneurs like him.
Sun, 12/20/2015 - 3:43pm
I, too, appreciate his entrepreneurial spirit. But, with all the money invested in our educational systems, why aren't those experts coming forth to train workers? Most community colleges have always had welding and other technical programs. Where are they when needed?
Linda Glotfelty
Tue, 01/10/2017 - 11:07am

They have been discontinued. "Why?"... the forever-asked question...

Thu, 08/04/2016 - 2:07pm
There used to be shop 'apprentices'. But when you kill the unions, you kill the good jobs and futures.
Mon, 09/12/2016 - 10:15am
Unions made this country strong for many years. But the rich got greedier and convinced the people the unions were bad. It's a sad situation now. A horrible way to learn a lesson.
Wed, 09/21/2016 - 10:51pm
Technology wiped out the unions so did Union corruption ! do not just blame greed !!!
Tue, 02/28/2017 - 8:27am

spot on!

Tue, 02/28/2017 - 8:26am

very true!

Sophia Kugeares
Mon, 11/28/2016 - 2:01pm
I too applaud Tom Moran. Now others should follow his lead. Its the gooold-fashioned Apprentice concept. As a Language Arts teacher, I've fough a losing battle with FL high schools to offer technical writing for starters, and expand into trade-related courses and programs such as those created by Moran. This is common practice in Europe and Asia.
Jean Fellows
Fri, 03/17/2017 - 3:51am

And would that welding was still taught at high schools-- as many "skilled trades" once were!

Tue, 02/17/2015 - 9:47am
I will be anxious to have you actually come to Paradise, Michigan to do this story. There is no shopping mall in the U.P., and only 2 escalators. Reconcile that with Ann Arbor and Lansing. The U.P is an underdeveloped paradise - waiting for attention.
Tue, 02/17/2015 - 10:33am
I couldn't agree more. Curious as to why the articles stopped at the bridge. All the problems you relate go double in the eastern UP and most other counties in the UP as well. These are hard-working, resourceful people who often work several jobs when they're available. Tourism and logging aren't enough.
Mr. Reality
Tue, 02/17/2015 - 1:13pm
My recommendation would be for those hardworking people to relocate to places with jobs. Don't give people false hope of economic development that will never come. Help them find true opportunities in places that need workers.
5th-generation UP
Wed, 02/18/2015 - 2:11pm
Not that easy to leave when it's the land your grandparents bought with GI paychecks sent home during WWII, and the community that held fundraisers for your scholarship to community college, and the extended family that means you have a cousin in every third U.P. town. Leave for a job with a company that doesn't know me or my family? Live in a city where my kids might have the latest clothes, but they never see their grandparents? Not much of a trade off for a "steady job" and some extra money. Rather chop some more wood and McGyver-rig the truck so it runs another winter, and be thankful for what I have, which isn't measured in the size of a paycheck.
Wed, 02/18/2015 - 11:43pm
You,5th Generation Up, are truly blessed!
Big T
Thu, 02/19/2015 - 7:43am
5th G UP, I read that you have a hard time leaving a farm that was made possible by your ancestors who left the UP to pay for it. There's a message here. It's no secret that many in the UP live there despite employment opportunities, or lack of. The pride of rugged individualism, living away from the "rat race", having room to roam, all come at a cost, a cost that has to be weighed against the urbanization of "paradise".
Thu, 02/19/2015 - 11:44pm
I have to agree with you. Making more money at the expense of leaving family and community who has been there for you is not an option. Trying to find and do something that will bring in extra income and get businesses to come to your area would be ideal. Get a government in Michigan that will help to create a better business climate, but not at the expense of the workers. Hope things work out for you and your family.
Sun, 02/22/2015 - 3:03pm
Great response
Tue, 10/20/2015 - 8:03pm
Well said. The old of argument of " just leave" is a lame cop-out.
Sat, 11/28/2015 - 9:58pm
Very well said.
Wed, 12/16/2015 - 2:20pm
My heartfelt congratulations and hopes you never have to leave
Long Hauler
Mon, 01/04/2016 - 9:38pm
I understand where you're coming from. My daughter is the 7th generation in my family to live in Charlevoix county - and my family network is a huge part of what keeps us afloat. From having family babysitters so we don't have to pay for childcare, to renting-to-own from my grandpa - living near family has provided us with assistance and opportunities that most people our age, in our income bracket couldn't dream of. However, sometimes we dream of moving closer to the action of a city, a place where we could bicycle everywhere, where people are more open minded - we are in our 20s, after all. But this seems like an impossible thought without the family assistance that we have here, and it would never be right for me to sell this property to some random person. However, obligation is not the only thing keeping us here. In this place, our daughter can play outside, explore the forest, and build snow forts with no fear of strangers. We are able to keep goats and chickens here. There is no bustle, no zooming vehicles, no light pollution - just trees, stars, cows. We have a small tight-knit community of friends - we get together for crafting, canning, hikes, pot-lucks, and all sorts of rad stuff. My family comes together every spring to taps trees and make maple syrup. These things are priceless. My partner and I have also been lucky enough to find decent wage employment from upstanding local employers - but our income, by no means, allows for extravagance. I am grateful for my family network and community in this area - and extremely proud to claim such a long history here. To those of you with a "just move away for better opportunity because money" opinion - you are the people that I stay here tucked in the woods to avoid.
Fri, 03/17/2017 - 3:54am

You sound like yu have found and appreciate the many strong reasons to stay. All the best to you and yours!

Fri, 01/29/2016 - 3:19pm
You go where the jobs are. My grandparents left their home, family and country to come to the United States for Jobs. These people are complaining about having to leave their Home towns? Go where the jobs are, don't expect the Government to feed you.
Fri, 07/29/2016 - 1:46am
Well said. It's a tough trade off. For sure.
Cathy H.
Sat, 01/14/2017 - 12:19pm

Thank you for sharing, you definitely have your priorities right! Making a conscious decision of where you place value, despite the difficulties life may bring, you're teaching your children and family what is most important. Not that my opinion matters, I just wanted to tell you that I admire and respect you.

Thu, 02/19/2015 - 8:43am
Dear Mr. Reality. So if no jobs,just move,leave your whole life,family friends. And if you are one of the working poor how do you manage to move,get a new place to live? Hire or rent a truck to take your belongings with you..? Clearly you are not poor.
Left Paradise
Thu, 02/19/2015 - 11:54am
I left 20 years ago! Although I had a house full of furniture and closet and dresser full of clothes, I left with a bag barely bigger than a briefcase. I'm by no means rich today, but I don't hurt for anything. My house is now paid for, so are my two vehicles, two motorcycles and a hand full of toys! I love my family and miss them much, but I couldn't live in the those conditions then and won't today or put my children through that kind of "rough life".
Mon, 09/28/2015 - 9:25am
Only problem is, past generations have done it, often with less and greater hardships. Be in moving out west (this has happened several times) or to Michigan from the south looking for auto plant work, or even from Michigan to the south for the same. There comes a time when you have to do what is best, not stick around because that is where you are from. The former help build build the middle class ... the latter idea of staying put and whining is keeping it from succeeding
Wed, 11/25/2015 - 6:06pm
Cool, so I guess you'll be here looking after my aging mother then? You can just go ahead and send all your information....please be prompt, I'd like to move to one of these places you spoke of with the great economy. The places who welcome outsiders into high-paying jobs. Anyway, thanks for the great solution to my problems, and thanks for volunteering to look after mom while I'm away working.
Sarah G.
Sat, 01/23/2016 - 2:15am
To Mr. Reality: Are you Donald Trump in disguise? You obviously have no idea how life is lived in our Northern Michigan towns, or our unique UP. I challenge you to trade places with me for a day & then we'll have a real chat about things that matter.
Thu, 05/12/2016 - 11:12pm
Moving takes money. And a vehicle. Not everyone has that, especially if you are in poverty. Also: college degrees and education do not mean you will get a good job. I know plenty of folks with one or more degrees (two and four year colleges) stuck working multiple low paying jobs.
Laurie S
Fri, 05/20/2016 - 9:25am
Except that there are jobs in these areas and if you look around town, there are signs everywhere...Hiring. Pay is below a living wage, and there's very little options for renting a place to live. The rentals are summer homes where people want $1500 plus per week during the summer months. Some will rent for less in the off season, but then the off season renter cant afford the rent when the employers need the workers. Moving away to a more lucrative area is a good idea, but it doesn't solve the problem. The area needs workers that are willing to wait tables, manage restaurants and shops, pump gas, etc. And they need places that are affordable for those workers to live. My son works at large organic farm in Suttons Bay. He was lucky enough to rent the one house in Suttons Bay from a property owner that is willing to forgo the big summer rental money to supply a place to live for the workers that serve the wealthy vacationers and feed the community. Those types of property owners are few in number.
Cot America
Tue, 06/07/2016 - 12:02pm
It has always been this way. The Great Lakes region has always been the summer playground of the more affluent. Year round residents have always either embraced this reality and lifestyle, or moved to where more opportunities exist. Nothing new here.
Big D in Cvx
Tue, 02/17/2015 - 4:16pm
Carol: The analysis "stopped at the bridge", because there isn't the huge presence of summer "one-percenters" (sic) in the U.P. to support the "Income Inequality" meme. Charlevoix/Emmet/Cheboygan is blessed with the summer crowd, which adds dramatically to the local economy. There is also a smaller influx of skiers in winter. Seasonal work trumps no work. There are also a huge number of modestly affluent folks who chose to retire here, and contribute immensely to the economy (and to the charitable support systems). That said, the article did note some bright spots. Entreprenuers who can avoid the seasonal swings do well here. There are a lot of folks in "poverty" (as defined by the federal govt), who have a homestead, are proud and manage just fine. Without a "struggle". I wish more people weren't preoccupied with promoting envy and focussed more on sound market-based economic development.
Sat, 09/12/2015 - 7:11pm
Thu, 02/04/2016 - 12:29pm
Yours is the best comment on this article. What, exactly, does income inequality measure? Who cares if my neighbor makes 10 times what I do? What matters is can I house, feed and clothe my family. My neighbor's income has no direct impact on what I earn, so why should I care? There was a utopian time in America for those worried about income inequality. It was a time when the US had the lowest rate of income inequality in our history. For most Americans this time was no utopia but a hellish time that no one would like to see again. Yes, I'm talking about the Great Depression. When times are bad we have less income inequality. Why would anyone suggest that it is a good measurement of the economy? The only purpose of measuring income inequality is to create resentment and jealousy of the "Capitalist Class". It is a useless leftover from Marx.
Thu, 02/04/2016 - 12:31pm
That was a reply to Big D
Wed, 01/18/2017 - 2:16pm

I think they stop there Carol because of the big money people that own homes there. I'm from Munising where people also survive on the tourist trade and even though there are wealthy people in town, it hasn't been the problem that you see in Grand Marais for example where people rent their houses to the wealthy but seasonal help cannot afford to stay there. The same thing has been happening in West Branch on the inland lakes forever.

Mr. Reality
Tue, 02/17/2015 - 1:16pm
Michelle, Pretty easy to reconcile, no jobs, no money, no reason for a mall or any other development. The best thing for people who want those things is to move to where those things already exist.
Fri, 02/20/2015 - 1:40am
that's not true theres a mall in the soo xalled station mall yet its a mile from the river
Wed, 07/08/2015 - 6:31pm
But that's in Canada. I drive 2 hrs to T.C for mall shopping but I like it that way :)
Mon, 09/07/2015 - 5:13pm
There is at least one mall in the U.P.: the Westwood Mall in Marquette. There are several empty storefronts within, but new businesses are filling some of those spaces.
Tue, 09/08/2015 - 11:52am
My best friend lives in Paradise, and while it's a nice place to visit, I could never live there. There us nothing. I don't even like the shopping in the Soo. The only place I Could live would be Marquette, where I lived when I went to Northern in 1974-75. That is a cool place to live. I would live there again if my husband would agree to it. He went to Tech, but he hates the cold even here in Muskegon, so don't think I'll ever get to live in Marquette.
Sun, 01/03/2016 - 2:00pm
yeah the upper peninsula is very undeveloped...but the cost of living up there next to nothing. Property values are next to nothing up there as well. I went to school at michigan tech and was up in the UP for years and its amazing but everyone is forgetting the key fact of this article. The reason there is such a pay discrepancy is because there is NO white collar jobs or industries other than tourism in these areas. I'm from Petoskey and have had this talk with my wife....if you don't own your own business or are in the health care profession your never going to make enough money to live in this area due to the cost of living.
Mon, 02/22/2016 - 11:01pm
I'm from owosso Michigan living in Texas, My husband would love to live in Pardise Michigan, it's beautiful there, we don't know if we could afford housing there.
Trevor Paulus
Thu, 07/14/2016 - 12:59pm
There's a mall in the U.P. I lived about two minutes away from it while I was enrolled at NMU...
Thu, 08/04/2016 - 2:10pm
The key word is 'paradise'. Be careful what you ask for. You don't want malls, mega stores etc. You have Utopia.
Mon, 08/22/2016 - 11:18am great is finding that balance between our wants and our needs. The UP is an undiscovered Cape Cod. It will survive and thrive but probably not in my lifetime unfortunately. My heart is in Michigan
Tue, 02/17/2015 - 9:59am
I've driven M68 from the freeway east to Rogers City a number of times and the poverty is not hard to see, little towns like Tower and Afton are just depressing to look at, I have often wondered what do people up here do for a living? Its no surprise that young people are leaving, relatives in Rogers City say that many of them see no future up there.