Leelanau Needs to Get Out Ahead of Change

We all love Leelanau’s rural beauty—this is absolutely a ‘common ground’ issue for everyone, Republican or Democrat, who lives here. It’s nice to think that Leelanau could forever be pristine—sparkling lakes, rolling orchards, charming villages. We live in a very desirable place.

But change is coming—as it comes to every community. The trick is anticipating and preparing for that change. When one segment of the County Commission (including my opponent in the District Seven race) decides not to set goals for the upcoming year, they are abdicating the Commission’s responsibility to its constituents.

The Commission’s job is anticipating—or recognizing—challenges and addressing them.

Is this process always smooth and effective? Of course not. But it’s why you’re elected: to identify and serve the needs of your district, and your county.

Because those immediate needs—and the ones we can foresee on the horizon—are very real: Climate change and its impact on agriculture. An array of proposed recreation sites on our lakes, as legacy property owners sell to developers. Eurasian watermilfoil in our largest lake (and the county’s economic engine). A severe shortage of affordable housing (owned and rented), while 40% of the available housing is unoccupied, year-round. A potential uptick in tourism as cruise ships dock in West Bay—and perhaps rail-based tourism as well. The list is long.

And–not all change can be predicted. The pandemic, for example, which served as a divisive and politicized point of contention for countless local government officials, precisely at the time when we were called upon to act in community.

In 2020, a Leelanau County Road Commissioner made national headlines by spewing racist language and thoughts in a public meeting. It was another opportunity to act in community, addressing latent racism in a county where most of the land was deeded, in 1855, to the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa, and strongly repudiating the Road Commissioner’s thoughts.  Some commissioners wanted to sweep the national embarrassment under the rug, however.

When we first moved to Leelanau County in 2010, my husband and I were both running businesses from home—he had a law practice, and I had a small business providing professional development webinars for teachers. And what we considered adequate internet capacity—we had cable internet prior to moving here—was unavailable. I was curious about why—Leelanau County is rural and rolling, and I understand that poses challenges to providers, but the county is also relatively well-off. Why weren’t providers eager to tap into this market?

Tracking the County Commission’s actions on securing broadband is how I got interested in Leelanau County politics. I heard commissioners describe broadband as a luxury, and the extension of internet services as spoiling our rural character. The Grand Traverse Band has been a willing partner in broadband development for years, but the Commission did not seem interested in working with them.

It took a pandemic and an infusion of federal money to get the Commission off square one, but they have now achieved a momentous first step of mapping internet availability across the entire county, uncovering the fact that 22% of the county had zero access to broadband. Think about how that impacted student learning during the pandemic—and how many clean, small businesses that could support a local tax base were turned away by lack of what is now considered a necessary utility.

There is no better local example of getting out ahead of change than what happened when Dollar General purchased property and applied to build a store in downtown Maple City, declaring that Maple City was a food desert, and the opportunity to buy cheap imported junk and off-brand canned goods would benefit its citizens.

Those citizens got wind of the plan and showed up in huge numbers at township meetings to protest. Dollar General withdrew the request—and there are presently two partially completed duplex homes (something we DO need) on the site. 

The irony is that Maple City is decidedly rural—there are fruit stands and community-supported agricultural (CSA) businesses everywhere in the area. Could the town use a small, pick-up grocery? Perhaps. But Maple City and hundreds of other modest small towns are now vulnerable to big corporations, with their eyes on the bottom line, rural character be damned.

The changes coming—inexorably—to northwestern Michigan are even larger than the ones we’ve been dealing with, like getting a septic ordinance in place, or resisting unnecessary gravel pits.  Climate migration is a real thing, and a beautiful, lightly developed area with ample water and a four-seasons climate is like a magnet for wealthy national and international investors.

Again—the County Commission is elected to identify and serve the needs of Leelanau.

Change is coming. Best to get out ahead of it.

This week’s take from the CSA box.

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