Working-class Osceola County can’t afford to ignore politics, presidential election

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Teri Dudley of Reed City’s Dairy Depot smiles after the proposed rezoning was denied by the local planning commission on Feb. 5.

Lauretta Sha

Teri Dudley of Reed City’s Dairy Depot smiles after the proposed rezoning was denied by the local planning commission on Feb. 5.

Editor’s note: This is the 4th in a series of election year county profiles in collaboration with the MSU Journalism School, American Communities Project, Detroit Free Press and Capital News Service.

Capital News Service

REED CITY — In working-class Osceola County, 64-year-old ice cream server Teri Dudley recently found herself in the center of her community’s battle to protect its legacy.

Dudley had worked at Reed City’s ice cream parlor, the Dairy Depot, for 40 years. Last June, its owner was approached by land developers who offered to relocate it to build an unnamed retail store in its place. After some digging, city residents discovered the developers wanted to construct a Dollar General, the second in the city.

The Depot is a landmark for community residents and visitors — few wanted to see it replaced. 

Dudley was one of over 40 residents who voiced concerns about the project at the city planning commission’s Feb. 5 meeting where commissioners would vote on the project’s approval.

On the night of the meeting, the crowd exceeded the capacity of city hall, forcing officials to relocate the meeting to the nearby fire station.

Then the crowd went silent as Dudley approached the podium.

“When I found out about this, I didn’t know if I had a job this year or not, and I planned on working a couple more years before I retired,” she said, her voice cracking and eyes tearing. “I see kids come there that were really little. Now, they’re 37 years old and a lot of them recognize me from all those years ago.”

Reed City’s fight to keep the Dairy Depot is one of many decisions reflecting the local economy and community in Osceola County, a lower-income, rural and working-class county. 

With employment rates still recovering and recent inflation, county residents can’t afford to not care about politics and the upcoming presidential election.

After further discussion with the developers, the commission unanimously denied rezoning the parcel. If another dollar store were to open in Reed City, it wouldn’t be where the Dairy Depot is.

Richard Saladin, the city manager, said providing infrastructure for new businesses and recreation is a commission focus this year.

“We have a brand-new disc golf park in Reed City,” Saladin said. “We’ve just received a $1 million grant for a pocket park, which includes a splash pad base. We put an ice skating rink up two years ago.”

Residents have wanted new developments to attract people, but some say the efforts have stagnated. Reed City Schools substitute teacher Tiffany Wygant, 39, moved there in 2018 with the prospect of change in the city. But after six years, Wygant said she hasn’t seen much change at all.

“Things never happen,” Wygant said. “Businesses — a few have wanted to come in — but it doesn’t happen. The dog park and splash pad didn’t happen, either.”

In the 2024 election, Wygant plans to vote for former President Donald Trump, citing his administration’s past success in promoting the economy.

“I don’t like (President Joe) Biden’s policies, really,” she said. “I think the economy has gone down the tubes since he’s been in office.”

Wygant isn’t alone in her Republican support. Saladin said the community tends to vote Republican.

According to the U.S. Election Atlas, a majority of presidential votes in all Osceola municipalities were Republican. Richmond Township, which surrounds Reed City, voted 70.3% for Trump.

Reed City is the home of one of two Yoplait factories in the country and employs over 400 people, Saladin said. Corewell Health is another large employer with over 460 workers.

According to Federal Reserve Economic Data, the effects of lower unemployment rates can be seen in median household income.

In 2012, the median household income for county residents was $36,023, more than $10,000 below the statewide average. The median in Osceola grew to upward of $54,000 as of 2022, remaining more than $10,000 below the statewide average. The increase is attributed to higher employment rates and inflation.

Saladin said all other Yoplait factories in urban areas were closed while the one in Osceola County remains open. “They use 1 million pounds of milk every day,” Saladin said. “It all comes from within 60 or 70 miles of Reed City, so it keeps farmers in business.”

Kristopher Cross, the owner of Homemade and More Consignment Shop in the center of downtown, said he moved from Grand Rapids seven years ago to avoid inflation and overcrowding.

“The city’s too big,” Cross said about Grand Rapids. “The housing market’s getting expensive, rent’s getting expensive and it’s overpopulated as far as I’m concerned. It’s just too much going on down there nowadays. It’s not fun anymore. It used to be fun.”

Cross said the COVID-19 pandemic hurt the county’s employment rate.

“After COVID hit, everybody kind of got lazy,” Cross said. “A lot of places are struggling to hire people because they got used to sitting at home for two years. You hear how they struggle with people coming in and out the doors all the time because they don’t want to work.”

Federal Reserve Economic Data shows unemployment rates in Osceola slowly improved over the past decade. At the start of 2014, it reached upwards of 10%, a figure that slowly decreased and reflected more local job opportunities. After a brief spike to 25.5% in January 2020 due to the pandemic, unemployment rates have fluctuated between 6% and 4%.

Despite a positive outlook for the county, Wygant said she believes community members will have economic concerns in mind when voting in November.

“The main things people will be thinking about are the cost of groceries and the cost of gas,” she said. “Everything just keeps going up.”

Reed City’s downtown district.

Lauretta Sha

Reed City’s downtown district.