BY GLENN PUIT
---- — FRANKFORT — The announcement at Graceland Fruit a little more than a month ago represented great news for Benzie County: the Frankfort-based fruit processor planned to hire up to 35 new employees.
But economic development leaders in this pastoral county, where agriculture, tourism and hospitality drive employment, said hiring sprees like the ones at Graceland are far too rare in Benzie.
The county is prosperous in pockets, but very poor in others, with a big chunk of the population in significant need.
Nearly 12 percent of Benzie’s 17,400-plus residents live below the poverty level, and in October about 605 county families sought services from Benzie Area Christian Neighbors, including 2,600 people who secured food from the organization just to survive.
“We’ve also had a decline in youth who remain in the community after high school,” said Troy Terwilliger, chief financial officer at Graceland. “When the economic woes hit, a lot of our youth left the area to find work. We’re also seeing a downward trend in birthrates.”
Benzie County Commissioners Don Tanner and Roger Griner said the post-graduation flight of local youths is their greatest concern. Jobs allowing for a decent living just aren’t there, they said, for a lot of young graduates.
“Benzie County’s biggest export is its children,” Tanner said. “It’s a huge frustration of mine. We don’t have the kind of work that can hold people in the area and pay meaningful wages. We have some, but not enough.”
Frustration has boiled over into action in Benzie. The county Board of Commissioners agreed this month to contract with the Traverse Bay Area Economic Development Corporation to create a long-term, concrete and measurable plan for job creation.
Graceland’s Terwilliger and Benzie County Chamber of Commerce President Mary Carroll are teaming with the county commission and others to try and unify all of the county’s communities — from Thompsonville to Frankfort, Beulah, Benzonia, Lake Ann and Honor — to get organized on job creation.
“There will always be economic development opportunities here and there, but there’s been no synergy,” Griner said. “If you look at it strategically, you can build on one opportunity after another, and then you can capitalize on all of them.”
The first step is already taking place. The county is appointing a diverse group of citizens to a task force to help lead public sessions to discern exactly what county residents want for a job growth strategy. The task force will meet Dec. 10 under the direction of the Traverse Bay EDC, and the immediate goal is to get the public involved. Terwilliger said it won’t be chamber members and business leaders dictating to the community what they want, but the other way around.
“This will be Benzie County residents thinking hard about what our economic future is going to be,” Terwilliger said.
Rob Richardson of the Traverse Bay Area EDC led a similar effort in Kingsley. He believes Benzie County can realize solid job growth if leaders can get smart about where resources will be allocated. The project, he said, costs $20,000. Rotary Charities donated $5,000, the county will pay $10,000, and the Traverse Bay Area EDC will “find a way” to fund the rest.
Griner and others said there’s been some discussion about the need for an industrial park that offers infrastructure including water, sewer and Internet-type services that could attract both manufacturers and high-tech companies.
“This is very positive,” said Chris MacInnes, chief operating officer at Benzie County’s largest employer, Crystal Mountain Resort and Spa, which employs up to 650 people in the winter. “Our unemployment rate is higher than the regional average and the state average, and that tells us right there this is an important initiative. We need to all work together because we want Benzie County to be prosperous.”