Ontonagon: Peninsula in peril; Michigan's Upper Peninsula struggles to survive

By John Flesher

Associated Press

ONTONAGON, Mich. (AP) -- A man and two children have the village playground to themselves on a sunny afternoon; the nearby Lake Superior beach is deserted. Streets with names such as "Iron" and "Conglomerate," relics of the area's long-lost mining heyday, have little traffic. Many downtown storefronts are empty.

Ontonagon is struggling to hold on after years of economic setbacks, including closure of a copper mine, a shipyard and most recently its last big employer, the Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. paper mill. The extent of the damage is reflected in Ontonagon County's dubious distinction of having Michigan's highest countywide attrition rate over the past 10 years, when its population dropped 13.3 percent to 6,780 -- a stark illustration of troubled times in the isolated Upper Peninsula.

When the Census Bureau reported this struggling state was the only one that experienced a population drop-off between 2000 and 2010, attention focused on Detroit, a symbol of Rust Belt decay that suffered a 25 percent free-fall. The Upper Peninsula, hundreds of miles northward and a world apart in geographical and cultural terms, lost 2 percent of its residents, which by comparison seems almost inconsequential.

Yet the numbers bring gloomy tidings for the U.P., a sprawling tapestry of forests, waterways and small towns that accounts for nearly one-third of Michigan's land area but only 3 percent of its population. Twelve of the peninsula's 15 counties declined over the decade, according to the census. Growth was confined to Houghton and Marquette counties, which have universities, and Baraga County, home to a maximum-security prison.

Equally worrisome, the U.P. is aging, as many of its high school graduates leave for college and don't return while young families head elsewhere for better job opportunities and a warmer climate. Its median age was 48.6 last year, a nearly 12 percent jump from 2000 and considerably higher than the statewide median of 38.9 years.

"I think the U.P. is slowly disappearing," said Kurt Metzger, a Detroit demographer and expert on Michigan population trends.

The Upper Peninsula is far from the only rural region on a downward trajectory. The census turned up hundreds of fading counties across the nation, particularly in the Great Plains.

But boosters have long hoped the natural beauty that makes the U.P. a tourist haven would spark an economic renaissance, drawing throngs of retirees, telecommuters and entrepreneurs. In February, President Barack Obama visited Northern Michigan University in Marquette to promote expansion of wireless Internet service in rural America. He praised local companies that have generated worldwide markets through online sales.

Yet there have been too few new arrivals and jobs to offset the decline of mining, logging and other resource-based industries that have been the region's backbone for more than a century. The nationwide recession has made things worse, sending unemployment rates well into double digits across most of the peninsula.

About one-third of the U.P.'s workers are in the public sector -- teachers, prison guards, park rangers. But government spending cuts are reducing their ranks as well.

"It's a downward spiral that's probably going to continue until we find a way to stop the unemployment and get some industry started," said Brian Cherry, co-director of the Center for Rural Community and Economic Development at Northern Michigan University in Marquette.

School Superintendent Gray Webber witnesses the fight for survival daily in Ontonagon, in the far western U.P. He's struggling to put together a budget for next year in the face of reduced state aid, rising pension obligations and other costs. Student enrollment has plummeted. Eight of the 29 teachers have gotten layoff notices, and program cuts are coming.

"It's a massive gut punch to this community's desirability to outside businesses and workers," Webber said, sifting wearily through a stack of papers on his desk.

Mike Soder, 54, whose family has run small businesses for generations in the tourist village of Curtis in the eastern U.P., has seen the number of resorts around the Manistique lake chain fall from more than 100 to about 25. Soder employs fewer people these days at his fishing tackle and outdoor clothing shop.

"I don't see the U.P. as dying," he said. "I do see it stagnated."

Yet he describes himself as optimistic, like many Upper Peninsula residents -- self-described "Yoopers" -- who are determined to ride out the tough times. They speak of fishing in clear, cold streams; the thrill of hearing a wolf howl or glimpsing a moose; the security of close-knit communities with little violent crime.

When district officials closed the public school in Curtis, the local township reopened it as a charter school to keep young families from leaving. More than 90 pupils are enrolled.

"People want to stay. The U.P. is a great place to live," said Sue Pann, the 59-year-old principal and a native Yooper. "You just have to figure out how to live."

Some hope for a revival of the mining industry that created prosperity a century and more ago. A nickel mine is under construction in Marquette County but has drawn protests and lawsuits from environmentalists.

Logging remains a key employer but has suffered from mill closures and soaring business costs.

Mike Brickman, 32, of Iron River, said he can't earn a full-time paycheck in logging as his father did. He supplements his income as a welder and mechanic.

"You've got to be able to do a lot of different things," he said. "Unfortunately, they're all expensive to get into."

On a 20-acre former dairy farm near Houghton, Jeff Flam cobbles together a living as a roofer and part-time worker at the local food co-op. It's a struggle, he says, but having a safe environment for his wife and three young daughters makes it worthwhile.

"We hardly ever lock the house," said Flam, 46. "You go to town and never lock the car."

High school student Alexandra Dix, whose family lives on a farm near Ontonagon, says many of her friends plan to leave for good after graduation. She is desperate to remain.

The plucky 17-year-old and her mother, Debbie, spearheaded a letter-writing campaign to preserve the paper mill where her dad had worked. There would be no happy ending. But the experience reinforced Alexandra's determination to return to her beloved Ontonagon after college.

"I like to ride horses in the pastures, in the woods, down by the river where it's nice and quiet and you can hear the birds chirp, no cars," she said. "This is my home."

Published: Tue, May 31, 2011