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Opinion: Coronavirus could revitalize northern Michigan

Dennis Lennox

This might be Up North’s moment.

In a normal year, northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula would be at the height of its summer tourism season.

The three months between Memorial Day and Labor Day are make-it-or-break-it time for small hotels or motels, family-owned restaurants and main street shops. A few areas reap the benefits of autumn colors, which extend the season on weekends into early October.

However, the global pandemic stemming from the novel coronavirus changed everything.

Heavy traffic along US-31 North in East Bay Township near Traverse City signals the beginning of the holiday weekend.

On face value it appears as if most of the region has reverted to the old normal. The pent-up demand undoubtedly helped save whatever is left of the incredibly short tourist season. Yet, a closer examination reveals a far different picture of Up North — and not least because many festivals and even Independence Day fireworks were canceled.

Outside a handful of well-to-do summer enclaves, the northern Lower Peninsula has struggled for years with seasonally high unemployment, rural white poverty rates as high as minority-majority urban areas, declining population, and a significant strain on limited health care and old-age services.

The situation is arguably worse in the Upper Peninsula, at least outside Marquette, thanks to basic geography.

At the same time, everything that makes Up North quintessentially Up North puts the region in a good position to seize the moment for the first time since the end of the mining and lumber eras.

Coronavirus gave employers in big cities the excuse they needed to transition to remote workplaces, which were already trending. Simply put, remote work is here to stay.

This creates a huge opportunity for northern Michigan, as there is no reason why the thousands of newly designated remote workers couldn’t live in the region year-round.

After all, most communities in the Lower and Upper peninsulas offer generally decent public schools, almost nonexistent crime and a relatively low cost of living. 

There is just one problem: Politics.

Nearly all of the northern region outside the two most populated cities, Traverse City and Marquette, is Republican red. Until quite recently, even most Democrats, at least beyond the liberal precincts, were a distinct tribe of blue. The inherent conservatism is not ideological. Rather, it is the kind of instinctive conservatism I call folk conservatism.  

This folk conservatism is predisposed against the kind of sweeping changes necessary to put the region in the best position to compete economically, not just within Michigan but nationally and even internationally. At the same time, existing regional collaborations struggle to overcome the parochialism of countless governmental entities — sometimes with overlapping authority — at the county, township, village and local levels.   

This has created a situation in which there is no leader to speak or act for Northern Michigan. Without such a leader, efforts to unify the region’s haphazardly economic development approach will never succeed.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is unlikely to support the changes needed to position the region for a better, brighter future. This means local leaders need to set aside their fiefdoms and parochial interests to position northern Michigan for revitalization.

Dennis Lennox is a Michigan-based political commentator and public affairs consultant.