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Whitmer creates rural development agency

Chris Bair

Governor Gretchen Whitmer has signed a directive to create a new Office of Rural Development.

“Rural Michigan is a fundamental part of Michigan’s economy,” Whitmer said in a statement announcing the new agency. “By creating the Office of Rural Development, we are recognizing the unique challenges and opportunities and making investments to put Michiganders first.”

The rural development office – which does not require approval by the Republican-controlled Legislature -- will be housed within the state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, which is led by director Gary McDowell.

“We look at housing, we look at health care, we look at education opportunities. In the rural parts of the state, we don’t have a lot of those opportunities just because of our ‘ruralness,’” said McDowall in an interview with Michigan Public Radio.

Also, he said, more broadband internet and better roads. McDowell says federal Build Back Better funds could make that possible.

“And we want to make sure we get our fair share of them, too,” he said, adding, “maybe, hopefully, a little bit more.”

McDowell says one benchmark to watch is whether the state’s efforts succeed in slowing the outward migration of people from rural areas.

That’s the critical issue, says Kent Wood, a consultant who works on rural issues. He says the governor’s directive is a good idea, as long as its impact extends beyond questions focused simply on agriculture and tourism:

“Why are population numbers continuing to fall? What are the challenges when a rural hospital system goes down? What happens when rural school systems start to close? What’s the effect on drug abuse and prison sentences in rural communities?”

Wood says the limited finances of local governments in less-populated areas is also something the office should examine.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.
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