The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) introduced the new deputy director of Office of Rural Development (ORD) and talked about where initial focus would be placed by the office.
ORD Deputy Director Sarah Lucas, who was hired on March 15, said the office would be focused on reaching out to talk with rural communities to see what their needs are, but there were three areas she knew needed to be addressed: Workforce, housing, and broadband connectivity.
“We want to make sure that we’re coordinating closely, that we are leveraging existing resources as much as possible, not duplicating, but rather making sure that rural communities know what their options are, what resources are available, and where we can better leverage those to meet specific needs,” Lucas said.
With all the money coming from the federal infrastructure package that was passed, MDARD Director Gary McDowell said putting Lucas in place is important because she would be able to help connect communities and local governments that don’t have the resources to take advantage of those funds.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really help build our infrastructure in Michigan for the next 50 years,” McDowell said.
Lucas said she plans on working with several other departments to help connect the rural governments with the departments that would focus on their needs, such as the Office of High-Speed Internet.
She said there are 900,000 Michiganders in rural areas that don’t have access to broadband connection, which can have an impact on businesses, education, health care access, and attracting more people to live in those areas.
The areas of housing and workforce were also issues she wanted to start helping local governments address.
“A lot of communities in rural Michigan have lost a lot of their young people over the last several decades, which has really impacted the pipeline for our workforce and left a lot of our industries in a really rough spot in terms of being able to grow or sustain their operations,” Lucas said.
She said the rural areas needed to become more attractive to retain younger people.
“Our rural communities, and their markets, workforce, natural resources, and industry are vital to Michigan’s prosperity, but they continue to face unique opportunities and challenges, which is why this office is so important,” Lucas said.
The office was created by an executive order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Jan. 4.
Lucas said she wasn’t only looking at the three issues she talked about, but to make sure that all the communities have a say.
“My plan is to make sure that everyone’s voices are heard, and I think that’s a really important step in building trust,” Lucas said.