Chambers take sensible approach with unified advocacy effort

For communities to grow economically, resources such as attainable housing and accessible child care oftentimes must be in place.

And while these needs may not touch as many individual lives in Northern Michigan as in the state’s more densely populated areas, getting the resources in place can be equally — if not more — vexing in this largely rural region.

With this in mind, we’re pleased to see chambers of commerce from around northern lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula taking steps in recent years to pool resources for state-level advocacy on the region’s economic development concerns. Their vehicle for doing so, the Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance, has drawn the involvement of more than a dozen partner and associate partner organizations, including the chambers in Petoskey, Charlevoix, Boyne City, East Jordan and Harbor Springs.

A full-time staff member with the alliance, Kent Wood, has a background as a lobbyist and has spent time interacting with many policymakers in Lansing. In recent years, the alliance has been sharpening an advocacy focus on the economic development needs of rural communities, most recently with this spring’s announcement of the “Four Pillars of Rural Prosperity” legislative agenda for Michigan lawmakers’ 2019-20 session.

The agenda groups the alliance’s objectives into four primary areas, including rural business development, talent attraction to rural areas, rural and small city housing development and access to quality child care. An overall goal is to advocate for rural-focused policies and provide tools to address bottlenecks to economic diversity and stability in Northern Michigan.

We see good reason for the alliance to frame its policy priorities using this set of interrelated “pillars.”

Housing opportunities affordable on working- and middle-class incomes, for example, are essential for attracting the talent the region’s businesses need to thrive. Northern Michigan’s seasonal resort and tourism economy presents some unique implications for housing availability — rental housing providers, for example, often find it more lucrative to market their spaces for short-term vacation rentals rather than year-round occupancy. At the same time, some who are exploring potential solutions to the region’s housing crunch find that state-level housing development incentives often are tailored toward locales with larger population bases — and the chamber alliance has promoted adaptability of these for more rural communities.

Northern Michigan’s rural nature also presents some infrastructure concerns different from those seen in metro areas. For example, the rollout of broadband internet access options, increasingly important for a variety of business needs, has been comparatively slow in some parts of the north. We see the chamber alliance offering potential to build awareness of these concerns among governmental policymakers and resource-providers.

As the alliance’s Wood noted in a recent News-Review story, progress on the four issue areas will require working through complex policy challenges with state lawmakers and regulators. Navigating these may not be easy, but we’re hopeful that the alliance supporters’ strength-in-numbers approach — and efforts to frame concerns regionally — will boost the potential for addressing these economic development and quality-of-life concerns.

— Petoskey News-Review