Up north, labor woes stall growth
Mackinac Island — Cranes should be filling the air of northern Michigan — the kind that move on tractor treads, not wings.
The Straits region is getting national attention from travel outfits that cite its pleasant summertime climate and the quaint resort towns dotting Lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior.
Hotel rooms are in hot demand, and bars and restaurants are brimming with visitors.
And yet Dan Musser, owner of Mackinac Island's iconic Grand Hotel, is holding back on expansion plans. He can't find the staff to support a larger operation.
"It's not just the Grand Hotel, it's all of northern Michigan," says Musser, whose hotel was just named a top travel destination by TripAdvisor. "If we had any kind of certainty about staffing, we could invest and expand."
Musser is ready to go with a $3 million build-out of suites on the hotel's top floor. But the plans are on hold while he works to solve his workforce challenge.
The solution rests with two highly charged political debates: immigration and welfare reform.
The Grand Hotel, like many northern Michigan resorts, is heavily dependent on seasonal workers from other countries — its 750-person staff includes 300 foreign workers who arrive in the spring and return home in the fall, without costing a single American his or her job.
Most come on H2B visas. Those entry permits have become scarcer as immigration policy tightens. The Grand and other resorts have to enter a lottery to divvy up the immigrant workers and hope for the best.
"We did OK this year, but we have no idea how we'll fair next season," Musser says.
Absent comprehensive immigration reform, investing money in the tourist economy is high risk.
Across the bridge in Mackinaw City, that's exactly the gamble facing Joe Lieghio, who delayed the hoped-for June 1 debut of his newest restaurant.
"As of today, I've been able to hire one cook," says Lieghio. "No bartenders, no wait staff."
Lieghio, who has eight restaurants and 20 hotels in Mackinaw City, is also going slow on completion of a 220-room hotel because he can't recruit hospitality workers. The pay isn't the problem.
"Bartenders and wait staff up here can pull in $200 to $300 a night with tips during the season," he says.
Lieghio even offers subsidized health insurance. But he says he can't compete with Medicaid.
"I hear all the time from people who turn down my job offers that they don't want to lose their welfare" by taking a seasonal job, Lieghio says.
So he's encouraged by the state Legislature's efforts to attach work requirements to Medicaid and food stamp benefits.
"Anything we can do to get people back in the workforce would be great," he says.
Lieghio is operating at just over 80 percent of capacity. With more employees he says he could run at 100 percent, and build more rooms and restaurants, creating even more jobs.
Government policies, whether they keep needed workers out of the country or incentivize others to sit on the sidelines, should not work against economic growth in places like northern Michigan, which are overdue for some high times.
But they do. So in the meantime, the region is not only a paradise for tourists, it's the land of opportunity for those willing to make some money.
"Anyone can walk into Mackinaw City right now and get a job within 10 minutes," says Jamie Mersch, chairman of the local chamber of commerce.
That's a message that needs to be heard in Washington and Lansing.
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