Shortly after we moved to Leelanau County, results from the 2010 Census were released. On the front page of the local weekly, The Leelanau Enterprise, we learned just how OLD the residents of Leelanau were. Some townships—studded with expensive lakeside homes—had an average age over 60. We were a county of retirees. And the situation hadn’t improved with 2020 Census data:
In some U.S. counties, the median age is far higher than the national median. According to data from the Census Bureau, in Leelanau County, Michigan, the median age is 54.6 – about 16 years higher than the national median. A reported 30.9% of local residents are 65 and older, while only 16.9% are 18 and under. For context, 15.9% of the U.S. population are 65 or older and 24.1% are 18 and under.
Residents of Leelanau County also appear to be less likely than a typical American to be starting or raising a family. The share of area households that are home to children under the age of 18 is just 19.7%, well below the 30.7% comparable nationwide share.
There are more than 3100 counties in the United States. Six of the top 50 ‘old’ counties in the nation are here in northern Michigan.
This is not healthy, and must be addressed, for a number of reasons:
- There are four public school districts in Leelanau County, and a great deal of loyalty for the custom-tailored (and free) education they provide. But if there aren’t enough students to guarantee right-sized classes over time, operations are not efficient. Student numbers need to increase or remain stable for families to enjoy the benefits of neighborhood schools—qualified staffing, desirable programming and the building of school communities.
- The local workforce needs workers who live reasonably near their place of employment. Without a thriving local economy and enough on-site workers, restaurants, small businesses and medical facilities are forced to cut hours and services. Agricultural businesses—utilizing Leelanau County’s unique landscape features—depend on both seasonal and year-round employees as well. The workforce cannot be priced out of decent homes in Leelanau County.
We need young families! And we need to support them (and in doing so, support the older citizens who are drawn to Leelanau County). How do we do this?
- At-home workers (and businesses—and students) need affordable and reliable broadband. The federal dollars used by the County Commission to fully understand our broadband problems and address access are a great starting point. As a county that depended on the federal government to provide rural electrification services, almost a century ago, we need to recognize that reasonably priced, reliable internet access for everyone is a necessity, not a luxury, in 2022.
- We need to expand early childhood programs and affordable quality childcare options—the kinds of services more available in larger, more urban communities. Leelanau County voted to do that, in November of 2019. The pandemic, arriving a few months later, made establishing programs difficult—but the need for these programs is greater than ever.
- Perhaps most importantly, we need to have an array of affordable housing options—smaller, ‘starter’ homes that get young families into the housing market, and reasonably-priced rentals. Housingnorth.org estimated that we need more than 600 units to accommodate demand—and that demand is growing.
The good news is that we have lots of civic-minded problem-solvers in Leelanau County. With the support of the County Commission and local government, and adequate resources, we can make Leelanau County a welcoming place for young families.