SUTTONS BAY — Something unusual happened the other day in Leelanau County.
I attended a packed meeting at the Leelanau County Government Center — aka the palace — and, looking around the crowded room, I realized I might be the youngest person in the place. This is a moment to cherish when you are 44 and growing older by the minute.
The real reason I bring this up, though, is not to glow in my newfound youth. It is instead to note the very real, alarming-to-some demographic trends of Leelanau County.
The League of Women Voters Leelanau County released a report that day documenting the rapid rise in the county’s median age. In 1990 there were 16,527 people living in the county with an average age of 37. Just two decades later, in 2010, the population of the county was at 21,708 and, remarkably, the average age had skyrocketed to 50.
That is an astonishing jump that carries with it more significance than making it more difficult to find tee times.
A rapidly aging population base tells us a few things. First, young families aren’t moving here, and that raises all kinds of concerns about the long-term stability of the county’s school systems. Fewer young parents with fewer kids in school translates into less school funding. And, if you want to take away a community’s appeal, take away its schools.
County Administrator Chet Janik gave me another startling number afterward. In 2009 the county graduated 252 high school students. This year the number was 159.
Now, I’m no math whiz — dropped geometry to take business math — but when this writer reluctantly attempts to crunch the numbers, I come up with an astonishing 37 percent drop in the size of the county’s graduating class.
“When you talk about per-pupil funding, it’s significant,” Janik said. “It has an impact on the culture, economics and communities. If there are no young people coming forward, and it’s all older people, what’s that spell for the future long-term viability? It’s a concern.”