2017-01-26 / Views

Reader's Forum: Leelanau has trouble in paradise

By Julie Weeks

I, like many others, am a returnee. After growing up and graduating from high school in Leelanau, I left for college and a career. At the time, staying in Leelanau didn’t even cross my mind, but I did return every season (as we well know, love for Leelanau is endemic).

My career path has included public service and work in the non-profit sector, focused largely on enterprise development and improving the building blocks of business support – known as “business enabling environments” (or BEE) – here in the U.S. and abroad. So, naturally, when the stars aligned and I returned to Leelanau to launch my own business, I looked around at the business enabling environment of Leelanau.

There’s much to love about starting and growing a business here: quality of life, natural beauty, locally-grown sustenance, and – for me – a nearby airport that can take me to clients and projects in this hemisphere and beyond.

But, look a little deeper and there’s trouble in paradise. Our local school enrollments are flat or declining. Some of our local communities are “hollowing out,” with full-time, owner-occupied housing being replaced by vacation rentals and seasonal residents. Being in “the most beautiful place in America” has many advantages, but has driven up the cost of living, especially housing, pricing too many young families out of the county – thereby out of our school districts and out of reach of many local employers.

I serve on the board of the Leelanau Peninsula Economic Foundation (LPEF), and a survey we’ve completed among business owners in the county confirms the severity of these challenges. When asked what issues are most challenging to them, fully three-quarters (74%) say that the cost of workforce housing poses a “significant barrier” to their business’ success. Another 37% point to a lack of childcare options for their employees as a significant barrier.

These are issues that can no longer be ignored. They’re already choking the growth of local businesses, and it will only get worse with inaction.

What can we do, and what role will the LPEF play? First off, for anyone who rents out a house by the week in the summer, then lets it sit vacant over the winter, consider renting it year-round to a young family. It will not only help our local businesses, it will increase our school enrollment.

And what will the LPEF do? We’ve heard loud and clear from the business owners who responded to our survey that they want to see us focus on workforce development constraints (housing, childcare, training) and business infrastructure constraints (broadband and other utilities), as well as be a convener and information-provider. In the coming months, that’s just what you’ll see us do.

Investing in the business-enabling environment today will reap significant benefits down the road. We want to work to support all that makes this the most beautiful place in America; and that means not just our natural beauty but the strength and vitality of our local businesses, the lifeblood of our communities.

~ Julie R. Weeks is President and CEO of Womenable, a consultancy focused on enabling women’s entrepreneurship worldwide. She serves on the boards of the Leelanau Peninsula Economic Foundation and the Leelanau Conservancy.

About the author:

As she explains, Julie Weeks has had a successful business career that has allowed her to work out of her home in Leelanau County. She is giving back to the community through involvement in the Leelanau Peninsula Economic Foundation.

Unfortunately, Julie is now fighting another battle, against cancer. She may be visited or reached at Effie’s Assisted Living, 300 Grand Ave., Leland.

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