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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Local Issue in Leelanau and Beyond

An e-mail message from the president of Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor, Bob Sutherland, has been making the rounds this week. The issue is important not only for Leelanau County but for every high-end tourist region in the country. When I asked Bob’s permission to post his message on Books in Northport, he sent me a slightly reworked version, so here is Bob Sutherland on the subject of affordable housing in Leelanau County:
Finding workforce housing is an increasingly daunting challenge for my southwest Leelanau-based company. Housing in Glen Arbor and Empire is difficult to find, and when it can be found, it is too expensive. Many of our employees will purchase a house in a more affordable area, like Benzie County, and drive 30 minutes or more to Glen Arbor. Turnover is much higher with these employees, because long commutes diminish their time with family and their quality of life.We continue to pay some of the top salaries in our region. But our employees are often competing against owners of second homes, who are making $200,000 or more. As the second-home owners purchase more of our properties, Empire and Glen Arbor are becoming even emptier in the winter. This challenges the businesses that try to stay open year round, it challenges the schools, and it even challenges the psyche of those that stay. And for us, without being able to find affordable housing, it becomes even more difficult to find employees during the summer. 
What can we do? One thing is to set apart land in Glen Arbor and Empire for year-round housing. We can put an affordable price on it and specify it be sold only to people that can prove they live and work in one of those towns. If that sounds like a pipe dream, it’s not. There are state and federal programs available to help make this possible. It’s already happening all across the country in regions similar to ours. From Ann Arbor to Aspen, Colorado, affordable housing is successfully being built. 
To make this happen, cities, counties, and townships are providing local funding. It isn't going to happen in any significant way in Leelanau until local contributions, whether in land or money, are provided.We know that it would be better for our company if we moved our offices and factories to an area with access to more affordable housing. But in the last two years, we chose to do the right thing for our communities, for our school, and our county. We chose to build and grow here in southwest Leelanau County. We want to be a part of building and cultivating a thriving year-round economic base for the area. 
To do that, however, we need the county’s help. We need the help of our villages and townships. We need the non-profit organizations. We will donate as much as we can to supporting these initiatives. It is going to take money, land, hard work, dedication and vision to make it happen. But if we all work together, we can succeed at this.
Bob’s original message prompted a quick reply from Andy Thomas of Thomas & Milliken Millwork in Northport, Petoskey, and Traverse City, who also gave me permission to reprint his message to the community group, and here’s Andy on the same subject:
Bob’s letter captures the essence of the environment that owners of small and growing businesses face in this area.  Their presence here is the main bulwark against the potential loss of genuine community, a place that provides work, home, school, and recreation.  Competition for the privilege of owning property in this unique and beautiful place can pose a danger of hollowed out towns and waterfronts.  Resort and seasonal property owners help provide tax revenue and support our restaurants and shops, but must be brought to see the value of an intact and healthy year-round community.   It is in their interest that our towns be capable of not only providing a broad range of goods and services for their seasonal stay, but a stable and thriving community should they discover that they or their children would like to live here year-round, whether employed or as retirees.   
We now need to support Bob and others like him.  He is pounding a stake into the ground and saying, “ We are here and we are staying here because we love this town.  We will do whatever it takes, but we need everyone’s help to make this happen.”  As stakeholders we are tying the future of our businesses and welfare with the faith that our community will be a supportive partner.  It is time for us as community partners with our area employers  to gather a broad base of support so that we provide this missing asset which is the availability of employee housing.    
For each community, this need for employee housing can be divided into three groups:  
·     Year-round employees 
·     Seasonal agricultural employees 
·     Seasonal resort and retail employees  
Having employees living in the community will mean they will spend money here, and in the case of year-rounders, send their children to school here, and perhaps become stakeholders themselves.  
We are all stakeholders.  The challenge has been identified and quantified.  It won’t be solved with a single development, but using the Aspen model and dividing efforts into categories could get us started.  I will volunteer for the Northport year-round team.
I was curious about Andy’s reference to the “Aspen model,” since I went to Aspen for a weekend conference back in the early l990s (my only visit to the area; note that in 1994 the average home price in Aspen had risen to $2 million) and was shocked at the price of housing. My rough estimate, based on prices I saw, was that any comparable home in Leelanau County would have an additional zero at the end of its price in Aspen. I was told that workers in Telluride, Colorado, were enduring longer and longer commutes, as rents soared in that Western ski town.

(By the way, for general informational purposes I recommend the City Data site. You can find facts for just about any town in the United States, and not just housing costs but just about anything else you want to know.)

Whether you are a year-round Leelanau resident, a summer person, an occasional visitor, a worker needing housing or the owner of multiple properties, as Andy says, "We are all stakeholders." All of us want the place we love to continue to be a real community, with space and welcome for people from all walks of life.


Susan Odom said...

I agree! It is something we, the Suttons Bay Township Planning Commission has been working on/thinking on. And as a small business owner I see the need.
-Susan Odom, Owner of Hillside Homestead

Dawn said...

It's a real problem. I have often wondered about the family you wrote of a year or more ago that could not find a home. Affordable housing is the basis for any community. I hope the municipalities decide to at least discuss the ideas presented.

Barbara Stark-Nemon said...

Thank you for bringing this important topic to your readers, Pamela.

Karen Casebeer said...

Both letters are well-stated. Thank you for the public posting. I hope this issue is finally becoming a priority.

P. J. Grath said...

As I understand it, the county is moving forward to establish a task force, a first step in the process of partnering with villages/townships, local businesses, developers, Chambers, MHSDA & non-profits to address the issue. I was thinking again this morning about my observations in Aspen over 20 years ago -- specifically, thinking how many services wealthy people expect (when an average home in an area is $2 million, I think it's safe to call the homeowners "wealthy"), from waiters and waitresses to bartenders to store clerks and cashiers and civil servants. I can't help thinking that the way we tax property is part of the problem, too, taxing very modest homes on the basis of much grander neighboring properties. It is good that Leelanau is moving on this issue, however, before it's too late. Dawn, my friends found a place to rent, and for now that's working out.