Michigan needs a Rural Policy Director

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of Rural Insights or its members.

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Michigan’s official state motto is: “Si Quæris Peninsulam Amœnam Circumspice,” or, “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.”

Michigan is a large state composed of great and struggling cities, sprawling suburbs and our often-forgotten rural communities.

We are asking our new governor, Gretchen Whitmer, who visited all 83 counties during her campaign, to show rural Michigan some special love and appoint a senior-level cabinet member to be her advisor on rural policy. This person would report directly to the governor and would work with all state departments and agencies.

The director also would meet with community leaders, serving as a “rural ombudsman” to find state-level solutions for policy issues. We also believe Whitmer should appoint a Commission on Rural Issues with representatives from across our state.

Whitmer has demonstrated by her words and deeds that she will leave no part of our state behind as the 21st unfolds. This appointment would be a tangible step to make her commitments come alive.

We have all seen the national and state reports on the increasing number of citizens moving to urban and suburban communities, while rural areas are seeing drops in population. Employers like Amazon and Apple also are expanding in urban areas. While this is occurring, we see the list of rural issues continue to grow and become more complex.

The two largest rural areas of Michigan are Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. The Upper Peninsula accounts for 3 percent of the state’s population and approximately 30 percent of the state land mass.

In the U.P., here are some of the issues people are facing: energy costs and access, road development and repair, internet and broadband access, access to economic development growth, health care availability, poverty and education costs.

There also are struggles over water and environmental issues around the Enbridge pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. In Lame Duck last year, former Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature agreed on a plan to preserve Line 5. While it presents serious environmental protection issues, it also is the major supplier of propane to the very rural Upper Peninsula, which depends on propane.

Other areas of our state, like Southwest Michigan, face similar issues. All rural areas would benefit from Whitmer appointing a rural policy director.

In the past, we have had formal and informal urban/suburban policy agendas, but we have never had a formal state rural policy agenda, much less a cabinet-level appointee.

There are many possible individuals to fulfill this role. Experience would be ideal in the legislative or executive branch, local office and business ownership in a Michigan rural community.

Policy matters. Having a focus on and commitment to rural Michigan would help create opportunities for areas of our state often overlooked in Lansing debates.

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David Haynes

David Haynes has served as a professor of public administration and public policy. He previously has served as President of Northern Michigan University. David has been involved in the public administration and political science field for over 45 years.

Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins served the citizens of Michigan as state superintendent of schools, state mental health director and was the president and CEO of the Economic Economic Council of Palm Beach County, Fl. He is an international business and educational consultant.


  1. Robert Martin on April 17, 2020 at 8:17 am

    Hello David and Tom. This is an interesting website and project. I am curious to be more involved. David as you know, I’m a retired bank president. My undergraduate degree was Finance at NMU with a graduate degree in Banking from University of Delaware.

    Let’s talk..

    Bob Martin

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