By Kevin Walker
LANSING, Mich. – State of Michigan officials have announced a new Office of Rural Development, to be situated within the Michigan Dept. of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD).
“Rural Michigan is a fundamental part of Michigan’s economy,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in an announcement. “By creating the Office of Rural Development, we are recognizing the unique challenges and opportunities in our rural communities and implementing policies and making investments to put Michiganders first. This new office will play a crucial role in supporting MDARD’s efforts and leading new ones as we all work together to build a more prosperous rural economy.”
Creating this new office was a longtime goal of the governor’s, said Michigan state Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Twp), a primary sponsor of the legislation. Witwer said her district, centered not far from Lansing, is unique in that at least half of it is small towns. Many of these small towns, she said, can’t afford fire departments, which are always volunteer; they usually can’t afford a police department, a recycling program and other services. “Those towns deserve a seat at the table, just like cities do,” she stated. “These places have families and a neighborhood. A lot of them don’t have broadband internet. Farmers live in these places, too.
“I think the main thing the governor wanted done is to make sure that a lot of these small towns have the basic things that they need,” she continued. “Many of the people I’ve become dear friends with are farmers. A lot of people in these rural areas do not have adequate health care, have no food bank near them and don’t have a dentist. People often have to drive an hour or more to access these services.” Witwer also said that it’s absolutely essential that farmers have access to the internet, since many pieces of new equipment rely on Internet connectivity. “These pieces of equipment absolutely need broadband, so farmers wherever they are absolutely need internet access.”
MDARD Director Gary McDowell said the new office’s focus would be on investing in rural communities and businesses through job creation, broadband and infrastructure expansion. The new office will work with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and others on possible projects, collaborate with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority to facilitate rural affordable housing; promote sustainability, environmental preservation, and green energy development; analyze and provide guidance on education-related issues affecting rural communities; and collaborate with the state’s High-Speed Internet Office to facilitate expansion of high-speed internet connections in rural communities. The office will also work with tribal leaders in the state on issues facing rural Michigan.
The governor reiterated in a directive that the new Office of Rural Development will help state officials ensure that these efforts are as “coordinated, focused and effective as possible.” The legislation creating the new office was HB 5406 of 2021. A posting for the position of Deputy of the Office of Rural Development is now up at the state of Michigan website. The deputy will report to the MDARD director.