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Rural Michiganders face housing, broadband and workforce challenges, report says

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Rural Michiganders face housing, broadband and workforce challenges, report says

Feb 11, 2024 | 8:50 am ET
By Katie O'Brien Kelley
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Rural Michiganders face housing, broadband and workforce challenges, report says
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Susan J. Demas

The Michigan Office of Rural Prosperity (ORP) has released the Michigan Roadmap to Rural Prosperity, a 71-page report that details challenges that rural communities across Michigan face and strategies to help address them.

The ORP, under the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO), was founded in 2022 as the Office of Rural Development. It was later renamed the Office of Rural Prosperity in 2023.

The office was created as a response to the unique needs that rural communities have and the challenges they face around issues like housing, broadband, infrastructure, economic development and health care access, ORP Director Sarah Lucas said. 

Rural Michiganders face housing, broadband and workforce challenges, report says
Michigan Roadmap to Rural Prosperity map

“The Office of Rural Prosperity is one of just a handful of state offices that are focused on rural prosperity. There’s about six of us in the country and not many states have a comprehensive strategy like this, targeted specifically at rural communities,” Lucas said. “It is very unique and I think it’s a really important opportunity for the state to kind of come together around the needs that rural communities are experiencing.”

According to the Roadmap of Rural Prosperity released last month, rural Michigan is home to 20% of the state’s population and makes up nearly 94% of the state’s land area. 

Rural Michigan encompasses Michigan’s 12 federally recognized tribes, more than 1,400 local governments, and 70 counties considered rural or mostly rural,” the report reads. “With over two-thirds of school districts and 21 colleges and universities located in rural areas of the state, rural Michigan is instrumental in preparing the future workforce.”

The roadmap aims to provide an understanding of rural needs and priorities and help guide local, regional and state leaders in “advancing collaborative and collective action to achieve prosperity across rural Michigan,” according to a press release from the LEO. The ORP defines rural prosperity as “resilient, connected rural residents, communities, and natural environments.”

Lucas said the idea for the roadmap started after hearing consistent concerns among rural community members. She said the ORP thought it would be beneficial if there was an understanding of how policy, programs and resources might impact some of the issues that were being discussed.

Rural Michiganders face housing, broadband and workforce challenges, report says
Michigan Roadmap to Rural Prosperity map

“I would say that the listening process began in April of 2022 and we’ve never really stopped that,” Lucas said. “That’s really a major function of our office is to be closely engaged with rural communities so that we understand what they’re experiencing and then making sure that our partners within state government and outside of state government have a shared understanding of what those experiences are.”

The ORP received input from rural residents and community leaders through several different engagement efforts, including a listening tour that reached 58 counties, a 2023 statewide survey that got 2,489 responses, rural leadership summits, local and regional discussions and topic-based roundtables.

According to the roadmap, those who responded to the 2023 Rural Priorities and Perspectives Survey said the biggest challenges facing the rural community over the next 10 years are: increasing housing opportunities, attracting a larger working-age population, changes to the cost of living, managing population growth and development and retaining workforce. 

Housing is the most cited critical issue facing rural communities statewide, followed by workforce challenges, the roadmap states. 

The seven strategies the roadmap presents to help address these issues are:

  • Growing and diversifying the workforce across sectors.
  • Improving individual health and economic well-being.
  • Supporting local and regional capacity to deliver services.
  • Expanding quality and attainable housing opportunities.
  • Building and maintaining resilient infrastructure.
  • Enhancing regionally driven and place-based economic development efforts.
  • Protecting and conserving natural assets.

Now that the roadmap is published, the ORP will be using it as a way to “frame conversations,” Lucas said. She said this is an opportunity to share resources and “best practices” so that communities trying to implement the ideas outlined in the report have the support and connections to be successful. 

“We’ll be actually talking to a lot of groups over the next several months about the roadmap and how it might look in terms of local and regional initiatives, in terms of statewide initiatives,” she said. “It’s really going to be, in some senses, a conversation starter and a vehicle through which we can collaborate with other agencies and with other kinds of partners, both within and outside the state of Michigan.” 

So far, people have said the roadmap reflects the experiences they’ve had living and working in rural Michigan, Lucas said. 

“Even in the last couple weeks, since it’s been released, there’s already just been a lot of really great opportunities that have come out of it to integrate it into local, regional and statewide action,” she said. 

Michigan Roadmap to Rural Prosperity_Report FINAL