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Whitmer creates rural development agency

A Civilian Conservation Corps museum stands near Grayling, Mich.
David Kenyon
Michigan Department of Natural Resources
A Civilian Conservation Corps museum stands near Grayling, Mich.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer has signed a directive to create a new Office of Rural Development in the state.

“Rural Michigan is a fundamental part of Michigan’s economy,” Whitmer said in a statement announcing the new agency. “By creating the Office of Rural Development, we are recognizing the unique challenges and opportunities and making investments to put Michiganders first.”

The rural development office — whose creation does not require approval by the Republican-controlled Legislature — will be housed within the state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, which is led by director Gary McDowell.

“We look at housing; we look at health care; we look at education opportunities. In the rural parts of the state, we don’t have a lot of those opportunities just because of our ruralness,” McDowell said in an interview.

Also, he said, more broadband internet and better roads are important for rural parts of Michigan.

McDowell says federal Build Back Better funds could make that possible.

“We want to make sure we get our fair share of them, too,” he added. “Maybe, hopefully, a little bit more.”

McDowell said one benchmark to watch is whether the state’s efforts succeed in slowing the outward migration of people from rural areas.

That migration is the critical issue, said Kent Wood, a consultant who works on rural issues. He said the governor’s directive is a good idea, as long as its impact extends beyond questions focused simply on agriculture and tourism: “Why are population numbers continuing to fall? What are the challenges when a rural hospital system goes down? What happens when rural school systems start to close? What’s the effect on drug abuse and prison sentences in rural communities," Wood said, posing questions he hoped the office would consider.

Wood said the limited finances of local governments in less-populated areas are also issues the office should examine.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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