KALKASKA — Once or twice a week the Great Lakes Central railroad train rolls right by Penny Hill’s Kalkaska office.
“I’d say six to 10 cars,” said Hill, Kalkaska's village manager.
The train stops at an area business, Magnum Solvents, to drop off much-needed product. The train's importance to the business prompted Kalkaska community leaders to explore a strategy to recruit new businesses that need rail access to be cost-competitive.
“In the 1970s, when they had the gas and oil boom here, they were bringing in heavy equipment for the oil fields. They’d get the steel coming in as well, and there was a lot of welding going on in Kalkaska,” Hill said. “(Rail) has a lot of potential for the future.”
Others also are thinking about how to use rail to stimulate rural job growth. State officials are carrying out an extensive study on what's necessary to foster a climate in which businesses large and small might consider moving to northern Michigan communities served by rail.
The Northern Michigan Rail Economic Development study should be completed this year and will compliment a statewide rail plan recently developed by the Michigan Department of Transportation.
The study's express purpose is to create jobs.
"There’s a real economic opportunity here, and we need to look at how do we capture that economic opportunity,” said Tim Hoeffner, director of MDOT’s Office of Rail. “What does the private sector, the railroad, and the state need to do to turn this infrastructure into an economic engine? It’s an infrastructure that’s out there, and it's underutilized.”
Rail has a long history in Michigan and dates to 1837, when horses pulled cars. Today, the state has more than 4,000 miles of operating rail track, much of it in rural communities like Kalkaska, a blue collar town looking to revitalize its economic base.