By MATTHEW HALL
Capital News Service
LANSING – Access to better economic opportunities depends largely on your Michigan ZIP code, according to Opportunity Nation, a Washington-D.C.-based coalition that researches economic issues.
A band of lower-opportunity counties stretches from Muskegon County by Lake Michigan northeast to Oscoda County, along with islands of higher-opportunity ones in the Southeast and Northwest Michigan.
“Communities really matter, geography matters and for far too many people, where you are born has way too much input in how high you can climb in life,” said Russell Krumnow, the managing director of Opportunity Nation.
The group’s Opportunity Index grades counties on their local economies, quality of education and community life.
“Generally, opportunity is closely tied to things like unemployment rate and the income of an area,” said Carsten Hohnke, vice president for strategy and policy at the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
“No doubt, there’s a good deal of variability in the unemployment rate across the state and there does tend to be slightly higher rate in the northern Lower Peninsula,” he said.
Counties like Washtenaw, Grand Traverse and Kent could have particularly high grades for similar and for different reasons, Hohnke said.
For example, the University of Michigan transfers expertise out into the surrounding Washtenaw County where it fosters entrepreneurialism, he said. That creates more opportunities to move up.
But higher education isn’t the only investment that makes a difference. “Grand Rapids in Kent County has a university but a lot of the opportunity there comes from really smart investments in their community that make it an attractive place to live,” Hohnke said.
Part of Grand Valley State University is in Grand Rapids.
Krumnow said factors like unemployment, poverty and education have long been tied to one’s opportunities, but the importance of community health can’t be overstated.
“Disconnected youth” is a particularly strong indicator of whether an area has mobility.
“If young people are not connected early in life, if they’re not getting educational training, if they’re not getting on the career ladder early, then those communities tend to do poorly,” Krumnow said.
“When measuring community, we include things like the percentage of adults who volunteer. At first blush, you might think, ‘What does that have to do with economic opportunity?’ but that’s a good proxy for how connected people are.”
If you’re volunteering, that means that you’re looking beyond your own daily subsistence and that helps build networks where people often find jobs, he said. Being a member of a church, sports group or civic club gives people economic resilience in hard times because it builds support networks.
Washtenaw, Midland and many Upper Peninsula counties had some of the highest ratings for community health, which also includes factors like physical health.
“The fertile business climate is aided by the strong collaborative networks that have been established across the U.P. region,” said Richard Smith, a community planner at the Central Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Regional Commission. “Smaller communities facilitate this type of connection.
“Also, these counties generally have a fairly high number of financial institutions and they seem to hold their own regarding primary care providers, with Marquette County, nearly twice the state average, and Dickinson County, which is 1.5 times the state average, doing extraordinarily well.”
Reasons for low scores in the Northern Lower Peninsula may also relate to other factors, such as a sparse, spread-out population as well as a much older population, said Jane Fitzpatrick, the program coordinator at the East Michigan Council of Governments in Saginaw.
The average age of Roscommon County residents, for example, is 53, she said. Many of them are retirees who leave their summer homes for much of the year and who don’t work when they are there.
As a result, she says economic programs that find ways to keep them there to contribute their knowledge would benefit the communities overall, as would better medical facilities and filling a large shortage of physicians.
Fitzpatrick also highlighted the difficulty of some local governments in getting grants.
“The state and federal programs focus more on larger urban areas and the more rural areas sometimes feel left out – that the opportunities aren’t there to take advantage of big-project money.”
Grant opportunities are made scarcer by the inability of a lot of local rural governments to provide matching funds, she said.
Richer areas like Grand Traverse County can easily use the quality of life they already have to keep and attract businesses that create jobs, said John Sych, director of the county’s planning and development department.
“One of our top employers, Hagerty Insurance, employs 400 people,” Sych said.
The Hagerty Insurance Group LLC provides insurance for collector vehicles and boats from around the world.
“That industry tends to be situated in California and Arizona, but it was a mom and pop operation that started here in the 80s and has stayed here because of the community and quality of life,” he said. “All the recreational, cultural activities and restaurants add to the scale of the community.”
Opportunity Nation’s scores were compiled by its research partner, Measure of America, a project of the nonprofit Social Science Research Council.
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