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Northern Michigan to See Support from New Office of Rural Development

Sarah Lucas Headshot
Rural Mich

Michigan has a new office of Rural Development based in Lansing, but its leadership comes with a northern Michigan Connection.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer created the all-new office in January, but it took until the latest budget was signed into law for the office to be fully funded. The Deputy Director has strong ties to the Grand Traverse area – and the Upper Peninsula.

 “One of the big hopes and the vision for this office is to be a voice for rural communities in the decision making process.” The new Office of Rural Development is housed in Lansing, under the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Lucas was appointed by MDARD Director (and former northern Michigan lawmaker) Gary McDowell. While she’ll be headquartered in the capital, much of the work will be done on the road in the state’s rural communities.

“The idea was really to insure betters access to rural communities and some of the resources and programming that are out there now or that might become available in the future,” Lucas says. She comes to the position from the Lake Superior Community Partnership in Marquette, and before that – Networks Northwest in Traverse City. “A lot of state agencies do work closely with local governments and organizations on the ground. But there hasn’t been a collective voice for rural communities in the past.”

Whether it’s housing or broadband, a shortage of workers, childcare, or agriculture issues – the Office of Rural Development is here to help. “Rural communities across the state are dealing with really complex issues that are connected to population trends. As a result of an aging population and loss of younger people we’re experiencing challenges related to revenue loss, lower enrollment in schools,” Lucas says. “It can be really difficult for a rural community that has maybe one or two paid staff people, to apply for those dollars and administer those grants at the local level. Limited staff, limited budgets really impact the ability of communities to solve their problems locally.”

State Senator Wayne Schmidt says he’s eager to see the good that comes with the newly created office. He says getting state funding for it, and programs like the – aimed at recruiting Michigan’s workforce – will push things forward, “That coupled with the Office of Rural Development, is really a good one-two punch in attracting more young people up here.”

Traverse Connect agrees that years of talking about the issues facing smaller communities – can get some muscle by way for formal support from Lansing.

“We’re also happy this office will be fully staffed so we can work on some of those big picture policy items -that we had talked about leading up to the establishment of this office- and really put the rubber to the road and really start making a difference for the people of northern Michigan,” said Director of Government Relations Henry Wolf.

The Deputy Director title is not an elected position, but Sarah Lucas agrees this new position is almost like another form of representation in Lansing. However, separate from any party affiliation, the focus is on what’s best for rural Michigan.

“It wasn’t a question of (R) or (D),” said Sen. Schmidt. “It was a question of northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula sticking together to make sure their voice is heard in Lansing,” he says. “To have her fighting for us too really makes a difference.”

“We really want to have, I guess ‘a rural voice at the table’ as agencies and decision makers are considering programs or new resources or new policies,” said Lucas. “We really need to think about how they’re affecting rural communities.”

“We really need to think about solutions for housing, broadband connectivity, child care. All of those amenities that bring people back to our communities. And keep them there for the long term,” Lucas added. “Regardless of what part of the state you’re in, if you’re in a rural community, you’re experiencing very similar issues related to the lack of staff, the need for housing, the need for child care. And some of the difficulties in accessing resources to solve those issues.”

Lucas says new grant opportunities for rural communities will start this fall. Remaining staff positions for the new office could be filled in the next few months as well.