2017-10-07 / News

Islands Link Forces To Tackle Their Unique Challenges

By Ken Winter

BEAVER ISLAND—You could close your eyes and think you were hearing the economic and political challenges facing any rural Michigan community - lack of affordable housing, good paying jobs, public transportation to education, and healthcare.

When you open your eyes, you realize these are many of the same issues facing 14 inhabited islands around the Great Lakes, with a few other obstacles unique to islands. Some 70 participants met Monday and Tuesday, September 25 and 26, to listen and exchange ideas for the 2017 Islands Summit, “Laying the Foundation for a Great Lakes Islands Coalition,” the first of what is hoped to be many.

Interested in getting information and exchanging ideas, elected officials, managers, and school superintendents came from some of the largest islands - Mackinac, Drummond, Manitoulin (Ontario), and Les Cheneaux to the smallest - Middle and South Bass (Lake Erie), Harens (St. Clair River), and Pelee (between Detroit and Windsor).

It was organized by a little known, independent state department, Office of the Great Lakes, which works to protect and restore our state’s waters. It reports directly to the governor and, for budget purposes only, shows up under the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The small, 20-member staff works and partners to support sustainable coastal communities, restore degraded waters, manage water quality and quantity, and prevent aquatic invasive species.

Outside the islanders attending the conference and those involved with the eight-state Great Lakes Compact, or some water quality issues, it’s doubtful many know about the state office. It was originally started by former Governor Jim Blanchard, expanded and made a cabinet level independent agency by Governor John Engler, and continued by Governor Rick Snyder.

Jon Allan, a 2012 governor appointee, says his department sponsored the two-day summit to help island leaders meet each other and share common problems. Allan previously was the director of environmental policy and intergovernmental affairs for Consumers Energy Co. He has co-chaired the DEQ’s Water Use Advisory panel and Michigan’s Groundwater Conservation Advisory Council, served as a key adviser to the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact negotiations, and co-chair the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Parks Commission

“We were surprised by the number who came,” Allan says. “Registration picked up that last week and we really had no idea who would come.”

The islanders spent the first day introducing each other’s islands and heard a northern Wisconsin college professor discuss the challenges of developing accurate metrics in low populated areas to measure growth and for grant applications not accurately tracked by the U.S. Census.

Representatives from the Maine Islands Institute, founded in 1983, shared how it works to sustain Maine’s 15-year-around islands and 105 coastal communities along 3,487 miles of coast line. Their core program areas include economic development, education, community energy, marine resources, and media.

Almost all islands face a shortage of summer workers and housing with aging year-around populations. They are still dealing with declining property values that have not recovered from the 2008 recession. Most have tourist-based seasonal economies and struggle to provide needed police, fire, and emergency services, as well as electric, water, and sewer services. Many, like Mackinac Island, have huge seasonal fluctuations. Mackinac, with 450 residents in the winter, has thousands of residents in the summer and thousands more visiting daily.

“We have to gear up,” says Mackinac Island Mayor Margaret Doud. “We are dealing with two different times.”

Others have different struggles, like Clark Township Supervisor Mark Clymer, who finds himself dealing with invasive weeds like Eurasian watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum) that are now choking its waterways and clogging boat motors and propellers.

In an area where the economy is mostly tourism-based, Mr. Clymer adds that affordable housing for seasonal workers is non-existent, its seasonal housing now taken by students enrolled in its boat and culinary schools.

Beaver Island School Board President Susan Myers echoes many island school district concerns. They are facing declining enrollments because few younger families live on islands, for lack of good paying jobs. Her district has dropped to only 47 students. Others have closed high schools, sending students to mainland schools that come with high transportations costs.

Harold Stieber of Harkens Island says his small island has no hotels, gas stations, or stores, and an aging population that has dropped from 3,000 to 1,147 residents since the 1920s, with 50 percent going to Florida in the winter. Located at the mouth of the St. Clair River, the residents want no change.

“We have a lot of boating,” he adds. He’s attempting to gather support for a kayak launching ramp to attract new revenue.

Then there are places, like Beaver Island, with no water or sewer systems, which prohibits business growth in its downtown. With no high-speed Internet service, it’s doubtful telecommuting will ever gain a foothold. One islander says they’re trying to figure out how to get rid of 400 abandoned cars left on the island.

Attendees are looking at how they can establish communication between themselves and establish a stronger political voice, working together to lobby state and federal lawmakers for sorely needed funds.

Ken Winter is former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News- Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame and teaches political science and journalism at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

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