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.