Speer: We need to address shift in population

Quietly, without fanfare or attention, it happens. Like a thief in the night another one is gone.

Boxes are packed, furniture is sold and soon a line of friends’ pickup trucks show up in front of the house. Tomorrow, another family is gone.

Unless you live in that neighborhood, however, you might not even notice. This isn’t a mass exodus, after all, but rather a family here, a family there.

While it might not be an exodus, it is a huge “brain drain” to our region. This “U-Haul” reality has an impact on nearly every segment of society – from schools to city government, churches to senior care centers. And, while the movement is nothing new, in fact it has been going on for decades now, the disturbing reality is that is has not slowed down and in fact, if anything, has grown worse.

Statistics released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau, and reported by the Detroit Free Press, revealed the following:

  • Alpena County’s population in 2012 was 29,234, down 118 from 2011. It was a -0.4 percent change.
  • Presque Isle County’s population in 2012 was 13,129, down 69 from 2011. It was a -0.5 percent change.
  • Alcona County’s population in 2012 was 10,635, down 152 from 2011. It was a -1.4 percent change.
  • Montmorency County’s population was 9,476, down 114 from 2011. It was a -1.2 percent change.

Statewide, Michigan grew less than a percent in population, gaining 6,559 residents. Despite that minimal growth, two-thirds of the state lost population in the year.

In the Free Press story Thursday, the author used statistics from Northeast Michigan to also address the “graying population” of our region, and the fact there were more deaths than births in this area last year.

This trend is something we’ve grappled with for years. At times, however, we all seemed to forget the magnitude, and reality, of what is happening.

Years ago, with the unemployment taking place at factories like Fletcher Paper or Thunder Bay Manufacturing, a lot of skilled workers ended up on the unemployment line. The hope of the region was that if new jobs got created, there were a lot of skilled workers from which to choose. It was a nice thought.

However, when those jobs were few and far between, all those skilled workers had two choices – either retrain into another vocation or leave the area and work elsewhere. Today, if a new plant opened or there was a sudden need for really skilled workers, the fear is whether enough would exist locally to fill the needs. The population has dwindled and many skilled workers have moved on.

Look at school enrollment numbers, Alpena Community College’s registration over the years, or even Sunday School attendance at area churches. The numbers are down – way down in most instances when compared to 10 years ago.

This shift impacts all of us, from grocery stores that need to provide more electronic wheelchairs for use in their stores, to youth sports and recreational groups trying to keep traditional programs up and running.

The shift also helps, in some ways, to understand the defeat by voters of an educational millage request last month, or another story that addressed less ice rental at Northern Lights Arena. In both instances there were many other factors at work as well, but the shift in population played a part.

We need to recognize this trend and be proactive in our planning for it, rather than ignore it and be forced into a reactive response all the time.

Like it or not, it is today’s reality. We can, and should, work to reverse the trend moving forward. But for now, we need to accept it and plan accordingly.

Bill Speer can be reached via email at bspeer@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 354-3111 ext. 331. Follow Bill on Twitter @billspeer13. Read his blog, More BS?(Bill Speer) at www.thealpenanews.com.