SUTTONS BAY — Leelanau County Commissioner Melinda Lautner said she thinks Leelanau County already has enough wealth.
Another county commissioner, Debra Rushton, said county residents don’t want growth, and county residents are perfectly happy pumping gas, buying a gallon of milk and going home.
A third commissioner, Karen Zemaitis, said anyone who wants to find a good job in Leelanau County needs to figure out how to do so on their own.
Those commissioners offered those insights and more at an April 8 meeting, at which county leaders rejected a partnership with the Traverse Bay Economic Development Corporation to create a new jobs strategy. Commissioners also disbanded the county’s long-running economic development board, meaning the county may have to return up to $40,000 in grant money earmarked for job growth for rural residents.
Those decisions have economic development and chamber of commerce officials, many of them in Leelanau County, collectively asking one question:
What are they thinking?
“The message that it sends, or at least risks sending, is that the county is closed for business,” said Doug Luciani, president of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. “‘We don’t want growth.’ It also puts the county at risk of really isolating itself in terms of all the things happening on a regional basis.”
The Record-Eagle obtained an audio recording of the commission’s April 8 meeting through a Freedom of Information Act request. On the recording, Lautner states the county already has enough wealth. It’s not the Board of Commissioners’ business to worry about its residents, she said.
“We can’t be health, wealth, happiness and prosperity,” Lautner said. “We are not that person. That’s not what we are elected to do. Interestingly enough, Leelanau County has health and wealth … that’s just a bonus. We are already there.”
Rushton’s comments about the proposed contract with the EDC included statements that her constituents don’t want any growth.
“I took it upon myself to call people ... in my district,” Rushton said. “They are not interested in it. They are perfectly comfortable going down to the local gas station, pumping gas, picking up a gallon of milk, and going home to their quiet community. They don’t want growth.
“People who want to do business will come to this community,” she said. “Why did we come to this community? Why did many of you people come to this community? Because of the beauty. Because of the serenity.”
Zemaitis said residents are on their own when it comes to making a living.
“We’ve been a county for over 150 years,” Zemaitis said. “The people in this county have always managed to make a living whether it was fishing or ice-marketing. Times changed, that didn’t work, they went to agriculture, cherries. Now they have the wineries. These independent, intelligent people in our county can make a living for themselves. They can develop their own economic community, they can figure out what it takes to have a business here. They can adapt.”
“The people ... who have been here for generations, they make a living, their families work their farms,” Zemaitis said. “Some of them go. Some of them stay. Some of them come back.”
Job growth ‘critical’
Leelanau County’s unemployment rate is 8.8 percent. Mike Murray, superintendent of Suttons Bay Public Schools, said new job growth is critically important to the school district’s future. The school system, since 2001, saw its enrollment drop 40 percent, which translates into a 40 percent drop in funding for students.
“That’s due mainly to the outflow of young families who have to move because they can’t find employment,” Murray said. “We are very interested in maintaining a balance of young, middle age, and senior citizens.”
Karen Pontius, president of the Suttons Bay Chamber of Commerce, said she was “very surprised” by the decision to dissolve the county EDC. She noted local chambers of commerce are all-volunteer organizations that do not have the resources to carry out economic development strategies in isolation.
“I recently participated in a meeting of village chambers from around Leelanau County,” Pontius said. “During that meeting I heard many times we needed a concerted and organized economic development effort for our county. Our resources and expertise in regards to economic development are in short supply.”
Linda Lindquist-Bishop, president of the Leland Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
“Small-town chambers themselves cannot handle economic development,” Lindquist-Bishop said, adding “we are all volunteer organizations. We all run other businesses. We desperately need that at the regional level.”