A roadmap to prosperity for rural communities

Like many rural communities in Michigan, Cassopolis faces challenges.

Among them is a shortage of housing in this tidy village of about 1,700 people in the southwest corner of Michigan. Development has been on the upswing in its small downtown and businesses have made known they need more housing for their workers.

“We are in negative housing,” said Emilie LaGrow, who is the village manager. "We have regular conversations with our businesses, and they need housing for their workers. Workers want to live closer. They want them to live closer. The reality is we have to grow housing.”

Even as Cassopolis strives to solve this issue – with three different types of housing projects in the works – LaGrow and village officials are aware that full success and prosperity with housing and other municipal issues will not come without collaboration – with local, regional, private, philanthropic and state entities. 

That collaboration is among the key strategies outlined in a new report, Michigan Roadmap to Rural Prosperity, released by the Michigan Office of Rural Prosperity, which is part of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

A first of its kind for the state, the roadmap identifies seven challenges rural communities face – including the lack of housing – and offers strategies in each of those priorities to collectively build long-term prosperity areas across the state. In addition to collaboration, the strategies call for more tools, resources, and partners in planning and collaboration.

Sarah Lucas, director of the Michigan Office of Rural Prosperity.“We always highlight the fact that we see success and progress in communities where multiple partners have come together to understand their needs, opportunities, and assets – and then create a plan to act on that understanding.” said Sarah Lucas, who is director of the Michigan Office of Rural Prosperity.

The 70-page report emphasizes Michigan’s long-term prosperity depends on the success of its rural communities in both the lower and upper peninsulas. Housing was the most “cited critical issue facing rural communities statewide, now and into the future,” according to the report. Rural Michigan has been hit especially hard by the increase in second homes and short-term rentals, shrinking the supply and raising the prices of homes and rentals for year-round residents.

The other challenges addressed are: Grow and diversify the workforce across sectors; improve individual health and economic well-being; support local and regional capacity to deliver services; build and maintain resilient infrastructure; enhance regionally driven and place-based economic development efforts; and protect, conserve and steward natural assets.

“When you look at these issues, most of them are not geographically bound issues," said Mackenzie Price, who is executive director of the Huron County Community Foundation who was involved in conversations pertaining to the report, sharing her perspective as a grant maker in the Thumb. “When you talk about a county, town or village organization, they want the best for the people they directly set out to serve. It’s not just one township seeing a housing issue. None of us are alone. Here are some ways we can address these issues and some different agencies that might be able to work with us.”

Sarah Lucas listens to residents and community leaders at a gathering in Munising.Developed after two years of engagement – including an extensive listening tour across the state, surveys, summits and various reviews – the roadmap’s vision centers on a “future of resilient, connected rural residents, businesses, communities and natural environments.” That vision hinges on the “close and continuous collaboration between state agencies, decision makers and rural communities and leaders to address the complex, structural, long-term challenges” the state’s rural communities face.

“So, the report really emphasizes the need to help communities not just with implementation of specific projects or development, but also as they take early, first steps to address a community need through planning and collaboration,” Lucas said. “And, in that same vein, when you look at the breadth and complexity of issues that are covered by the report – and that rural communities are facing – it becomes clear that rural communities need more tools, resources, and partners to be engaged in that planning and collaboration, and ultimately to be successful.”

Those who participated in the lengthy process and have reviewed the report said the Michigan Roadmap to Rural Prosperity clearly identifies the challenges rural areas face and offers solid strategies and priorities. The call for greater collaboration among local, county, and other entities to address those issues especially resonated.  Too often, rural communities strive to find solutions to their challenges in isolation. 

“The whole goal is to help folks understand rural Michigan a little better – what challenges and opportunities exist in rural Michigan,” Price said. “It makes it easier for people who say they want to support the rural economy and the development of rural infrastructure. It's a good place to get information for what that engagement looks like.”

The strategies identified in the roadmap center around solutions that can be scaled to respond to needs and opportunities identified by rural communities through “regular, ongoing, two-way engagement and inclusive decision-making.” Addressing housing, the report recommends more than a dozen strategies, including advocating for state, federal and philanthropic funding requirements that reflect rural needs and development requirements, and can be feasibly implemented by low-capacity, under-resourced communities.” 

“I think what stands out to me is the emphasis that rural communities share the same challenges as urban communities, but they look different,” said Jessica AcMoody, who is policy director of the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan (CEDAM), a nonprofit trade association with a focus on community and economic development. “Because they look different, we have to have different policies in place.

“This is an impressive report, and they did a lot of research and talked to a lot of stakeholders,” she added. The needs of rural communities, she noted, were clearly identified. CEDAM has been working on housing and capacity issues across the state.

Along with identifying the challenges and strategies, the report defines what is rural and shares population and economic trends and the demographics of rural Michigan. Rural Michigan is home to 20 percent of the state’s population. “Rural Michigan generally lacks a sustainable or balanced population – a population that is diverse in age, experience, and backgrounds – making it more challenging to meet current and evolving needs of rural residents, businesses, and communities,” according to the report.

The assets of rural Michigan are many. Rural Michigan is home to 94 percent of the state’s land area, “boasting tremendous natural resources that provide sustenance to residents, drive our economy, are culturally significant, and offer endless outdoor opportunities,” the report says. Rural Michigan is also home to some 50,000 farms, making Michigan the second-most agriculturally diverse state in the country; 12 federally recognized tribes; more than 1,400 local governments and 70 counties considered rural or mostly rural. 

More than 155,000 firms call rural Michigan home, and two-thirds of school districts and 21 colleges and universities are located in rural areas, making rural Michigan “instrumental in preparing the future workforce.”

The hope is that along with the state’s Growing Michigan Together and the Michigan Poverty Task Force, the Michigan Roadmap to Rural Prosperity will further kick start action and promote these priorities across the Great Lakes State.

Downtown Cassopolis.In Cassopolis, even as village officials work to provide new housing options, they’re struggling to find money to help with infrastructure to accommodate a new development. And other challenges – including capacity and placemaking – remain.

The village’s success – with a host of municipal, housing and recreation improvements in recent years – has come through leadership, hard work and collaboration. Cassopolis has been tapping the services of the Michigan Municipal League on the new housing development, which will create about 60 homes near the village's Little League field.

“We worked really hard collaborating with those around to secure grants and to increase capacity to administer grants just to be in the know about what’s going on,” LaGrow said. “The reality is that as we move forward, we are all realizing, as small or rural communities, that we don’t have the funding mechanisms or capacity to keep up with things. To be sustainable, we have to do better.

“None of us are in a position to provide on our own all the services to residents unless we look at things differently. (The report) is a call to action.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.