TRAVERSE CITY — Connectivity was central to the 2022 Northern Michigan Policy Conference hosted by the Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance, a coalition of 16 chambers and economic development organizations in the region.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and U.S. Sen. Gary Peters told the Friday afternoon conference at the Great Wolf Lodge in Traverse City that connecting with money allocated from the federal government will help put the state in general and northern Michigan in particular on the road to economic recovery. U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow touted the resiliency of the state in a video address later in the conference.

“We’re Michiganders, we know how to stay focused on what matters,” Whitmer said near the end of her address. “I am ready to roll up my sleeves and ready to work hard with each and every one of us.”

“I share the governor’s optimism about this state,” said Peters, who followed Whitmer to the stage. “We live in an amazing state with great resources. Our strength is each and every one of you.”

Whitmer and Peters both pointed toward the recent adoption of the state’s Office of Rural Development and the High-Speed Internet Office as ways to drive continued economic development into 2022 and beyond. Whitmer said both could help northern Michigan in particular because “one size does not fit all.”

“We’re really fortunate that we have billions in federal resources that we have yet to deploy and I’m excited about what this may mean for our state,” Whitmer told reporters outside the conference room. “If we stay focused on the fundamentals, we can get Michigan on the path to real prosperity in all communities.”

Whitmer said the Office of Rural Development focuses on affordable housing as well as workforce talent attraction and retention.

“We have an incredible quality of life and we have a lower cost of living than you can find in many other places,” Whitmer said. “If you’re connected, you can find a great opportunity here in Michigan.”

Peters said ensuring everyone in the state has reliable Internet access and attracting workers — and more importantly keeping them — in Michigan is important because of what is called the Great Resignation. Peters said 1.5 million people retire in a typical year, but more than 3.5 million did in 2021. Add that in with declining birth rates and the issue compounds.

Russ Knopp, the co-owner of Traverse City Comfort Keepers, asked Peters about attracting more guest workers from outside the U.S.

Peters said having guest workers “come here in a legal way, work legally and contribute to the economy” is important. Peters added he would like to increase the issuance of work visas and try to get it done earlier in the calendar year to help businesses plan for the busier summer seasons.

Housing and child care are each critical to attraction and retention of talent, a frequent topic of discussion during the the Northern Michigan Policy Conference and a centerpiece of the Chamber Alliance agenda.

“Affordable and accessible child care is critical to communities,” Whitmer said.

All of these topics were part of the first panel discussion at the conference.

Moderated by State Rep. Jack O’Malley, the Northern Caucus panel included State Sen. Wayne Schmidt, State Sen. Jim Stamas, State Sen. Curt VanderWall, State Rep. Sue Allor and State Rep. John Roth.

The panel discussed a wide range of topics from eliminating deficiencies in the state per-pupil foundation allowance, the Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve, child care and even short-term rentals.

But the biggest audience response came when the panel touted an emphasis on post-secondary training that may not require a bachelor’s degree. While no one said a college degree shouldn’t be a goal, several emphasized trade schools and co-ops as a career path for some.

Roth said Britten in Traverse City has openings for welders, which is a well-paying job that also comes with little or no college debt.

“We have to stop telling all our kids they have to go to a four-year university,” Roth said to applause from the policy conference attendees.

O’Malley, who said he had two kids attend four-year schools and has another considering it, said the definition of higher education should apply to all post-secondary training.

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