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 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.
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.