Strong communities are similar to large buildings — they need solid foundations to endure over time.

Bolstering our Northern Michigan communities is the focus of the Traverse City Area Chamber’s 2019-20 legislative agenda. Our partners in the Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance are joining in, and together our chambers will press state lawmakers in the months ahead.

Our “Four Pillars of Rural Prosperity” seek to provide rural-centric tools for obstacles to economic diversity and stability for our region in four main areas: rural business development; talent attraction to rural areas; small city and rural housing development; and access to quality child care.

They aren’t simple issues with quick fixes, and require working through other complex policy challenges in a large and diverse state. However, most are common-sense solutions that can generate economic and community progress in rural areas and small cities throughout Michigan.

I’ll be the first to admit, it’s not rocket science. But, with any luck, it could help bring some of them to the region.

Here are some of the specifics:

Rural Business Development

Talking about incentives in the political realm can be as politically dangerous as swimming in shark-infested waters. Incentives are not necessarily partisan issues, but everyone has their own opinion of them. So why weigh in?

Our position on incentives is one of parity. If the state is going to be in the incentive game, everyone should be able to play, and compete in a right-sized bracket — similar to how high school athletics divides teams based on size. It doesn’t mean the individual talent is less from division to division, but does factor the likely disparity between small programs and large schools with more students, more capacity, and deeper talent pools.

Our chambers will advocate for parity among state business incentives so rural areas can compete with larger communities. Arkansas, for example, uses a 4-tiered business incentive approach based on county populations that could be a useful tool for rural communities in Michigan. We’ll also advocate for research and development tax-credit programs specific to rural areas, or other rural tax credits to incentivize new jobs and investment in emerging industries. Addressing rural infrastructure is another priority, including advocating for investment in high-speed internet and consistent air service growth.

Talent Attraction to Rural Areas

We can’t grow — or even sustain — our economy without the people and talent to make it happen.

Perhaps one of the hardest tasks for employers in this job market is convincing talent to uproot their lives and relocate to a rural area with short summers and cold, harsh winters. It’s a reality of circumstance and Mother Nature we face and must embrace.

That’s why we want as many talent-attraction tools as possible for our business sector to attract top professional and skilled employees with tools including intern and apprentice tax credits, and rural relocation incentives to draw in talent from other states and even overseas.

It’s also vital to support and improve our rural health care systems as access to quality health care is a critical quality of life indicator and recruitment tool in bringing professionals and skilled workers (and their families) to Northern Michigan. Think about it. If you can’t provide people with top-notch access to critical health services like an ER, or OB services for young families, good luck getting someone to move there.

Rural and Small City Housing Development

Among our region’s toughest nuts to crack, we’re making progress on the local housing front — but there’s still much work to do. We believe that rural-focused programs will help alleviate some major problems rural communities and developers have dealing with certain state and federal programs.

Some of our ideas include incentives for rural employers that offset housing costs through new development, building rehabilitation, vouchers or down-payments programs. We also support creating PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) to allow communities to work directly with developers to incentivize workforce housing — something not currently allowed under state law.

Access to Quality Child Care

Northern Michigan families — and those we hope to attract — need access to quality child care to fully integrate into our workforce. Unfortunately, there’s not enough of it in the region, and it has become another major hurdle that our region’s employers experience in the daily struggle to attract and retain talent. It’s a topic we hammered home with Governor Gretchen Whitmer a few weeks ago when she made her first visit to Traverse City.

To address this, the Chamber will advocate for ways to make opening and maintaining a child-care facility more achievable, including increasing technical assistance to new child-care providers and creating an ombudsman role to assess compliance and regulatory inconsistencies across the state.

As some employers are already taking matters into their own hands, we’ll consider incentivizing options for our employers to provide on-site child care or through multi-employer cooperatives.

The challenge for our region is using growth in traditional industries like tourism and agriculture to springboard and bolster emerging industries like health care, technology, advanced manufacturing and environmental research.

It’s a full plate, to be sure. But building strong economies — like large structures — require solid pillars and there are no shortcuts to creating a sound foundation on which to build generational growth. If we get the basics right, and fill our rural economic tool box, there’s no limit to the economic prosperity and quality of life our region can achieve.

Kent Wood is the Director of Government Relations for the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and the Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance. Contact him at kentw@tccchamber.org.

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