Facing Main

Changes in Rural America

Sometimes, the islands and mountains get their victory to remain under-developed

By Maggie Doherty

In my month-long visit to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I noticed that this rural area with communities shaped in the summer months by tourism shares similar problems to the Flathead Valley. While the U.P. doesn’t contain two iconic national parks like Montana, the Great Lakes are a significant draw for visitors and tourism continues to impact the area, much like it does in the Flathead. Both good and bad.

A common topic of conversation among my relatives or strangers standing in line at the grocery store is housing prices and affordability, which is to say the same kind of conversation we have back West. Housing prices are up, homes are selling for cash, and rentals for everyday residents and workers are scarce. Although the U.P. isn’t on the map so to speak like Bozeman for attracting the ultra-wealthy and celebrities, this area is facing a similar housing crisis. There is no U.P equivalent of the television show “Yellowstone” adding to its fame, but it is a place that boasts a lot of wild, open spaces and not many people.

The pandemic and the rise of remote work have changed America’s landscape and rural areas like northwest Montana and the U.P. are grappling with the effects. Worker shortages are common in both areas, and there are “help wanted” signs in every business in the small town of Cedarville where my extended family lives. In my time in Michigan, I witnessed that Montana isn’t the only state facing a whiplash of dramatic changes. Areas like the U.P. and northern New England are confronting a web of problems from dramatic shifts in population.

Admittedly, it felt nice to commiserate with my relatives, trading different stories about how much the house on the corner sold for or how a favorite restaurant struggled to find workers all summer, closing one day a week just to make it through the busy season. We agreed that we didn’t blame anyone for wanting to move from crowded, boring, or flat insert-bland-town-name-here for a spot in the woods/on the water/in the mountains. After all, we all had the same idea to live in a place where the natural beauty made us feel luckier than winning any lottery.

Just as the conversation was about to turn sour, spiraling into the place where politics and community feel fragile and hostile, my uncle reminded me about a planned development that would forever have altered a very special place in the U.P. An island would have been paved over to make room for a golf course and condos. Some claimed it was inevitable, this type of development. Good for the economy! Others said no, not in this place.

A group of concerned citizens rallied and told the county and the developers that this wasn’t the right place for such a project, and the project failed. There’s no paving or golf courses or condos at this place.

Sometimes, the locals win. Sometimes, the islands and mountains get their victory to remain under-developed.

Too bad in Montana the supermajority in the Legislature didn’t do anything this legislative session to help Montana homeowners with our property taxes because right now it sure feels like every day citizens have a lot to lose.

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