Gov. Gretchen Whitmer met virtually on Friday with a group of elected officials, educators, economic developers and business leaders to discuss the direction of her administration’s new Office of Rural Development.
Whitmer signed an executive directive earlier this week creating the new office inside of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD). The office will focus solely on issues facing rural communities throughout the state, which has been a priority particularly for economic developers in Northern Michigan.
Friday’s roundtable session was designed for Whitmer — in addition to MDARD Director Gary McDowell and Michigan Economic Development Corp. President and CEO Quentin Messer Jr. — to seek input from stakeholders in rural communities while laying out their vision.
“(The Office of Rural Development) came from a lot of our rural leaders across Michigan,” Whitmer told media members at the conclusion of the roundtable. “I think that it’s become very clear that this is a way we can combine our efforts — whether it’s around housing or broadband or agriculture or economic development — to have one particular office that is coordinating and coalition-building as we make decisions around policy and spending to ensure we’re able to meet those needs.”
Based on the feedback of attendees, Whitmer said population loss, broadband access and housing were three of the most crucial issues facing rural communities.
McDowell, who lives in the Upper Peninsula and admitted to facing internet connectivity woes of his own, echoed those sentiments.
“Broadband is probably the first thing we hear,” McDowell said. “We just need to get this corrected. Coming out of the pandemic is just the opportunity to do it. (The pandemic) really shined a spotlight on it. When you’re trying to work from home and you have children trying to do schoolwork from home, up here, we have so many areas that don’t have broadband.”
As members of the new office begin to mobilize, Whitmer stressed the importance of protecting the Office of Rural Development beyond her term. Upper Peninsula state Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, has made an effort to do that with Senate Bill 682, which would make the office permanent starting in 2023. McBroom proposed the bill in October, and it has been referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“I want to get this codified. I want to get a statute so that this isn’t an office that goes away at the end of the administration,” Whitmer said. “This is something that I think needs to transcend the politics of the day and the office holder of the time because I do think there is a lot of value here.”