Rural counties in the Northern Great Lakes region grew faster than the rest of rural America last year, a fact that may be related to the region’s enticing natural amenities and changes in work related to the pandemic.
“There’s just a wealth of biking, hiking, skiing, water,” Brian Boyle said of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which is formed by the northernmost Great Lakes, Superior, Huron, and Michigan.
“There’s everything up here and it’s kind of a cool place.”
Boyle is the executive officer of Issues Media Group, which publishes UPword, a digital news magazine focusing on the Upper Peninsula. He told the Daily Yonder that people want to be where there is a better quality of life — more fresh air, less traffic, and, as Boyle said, places that are “away from the hassle of bigger urban areas.”
The rural growth trend was especially strong in Michigan, where three quarters of the state’s rural counties gained population, and Wisconsin, where two-thirds of rural counties gained population. Nationally, just over half of all rural counties gained population in the last year.
In Marquette County, there’s a little something for everyone. Swimmers enjoy warmer water at inland lakes, while paddlers, boaters, and fishers dive into Lake Superior. And the fun doesn’t end when the days grow shorter and the lake freezes over. There’s no lack of winter sports – skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, ice fishing, etc.
Marquette County gained over 800 people between 2021 and 2022, a 1.3% increase since 2020. Access to high speed internet may be one appeal. In 2022, Marquette ranked as one of the best places for remote work, based on a dataset put together by Ownerly, which considered factors like housing costs, safety, and access to broadband. The median monthly rent for a two bedroom unit in Marquette County was $940, half the national price.
But Boyle said he thinks Marquette’s appeal goes deeper than just cost of living and internet reliability. He said that people who visit Marquette realize that there’s something different about it.
“The place really gets into your soul,” Boyle said. “Everyone tells you why Marquette’s great and you should get up there. But when you get up there and experience it, it’s special.”
The Great Lakes Attract Outdoor Enthusiasts
Between 2021 and 2022, rural places with recreation economies attracted over 17,000 newcomers in the Great Lakes states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Recreation-dependent counties are places with a certain share of their economy dependent on recreation related industries, according to the Economic Research Service (ERS). There are 55 rural recreation counties in the Great Lakes region with a population of over 1.4 million residents.
But even though the region grew because of migration, it also experienced a natural decrease in population, which happens when the number of deaths outpace the number of births. When we accounted for the 7,300 people lost due to natural decrease, the net population gain was 10,000 residents, a 0.74% increase from the year before.
Less than a 1% change in growth might not sound like a lot, but it’s over 500% higher than the national rural growth rate. If the trend continues at the same rate, rural counties in the region will grow by 1.5 million residents by 2031, a 7.3% increase from 2021.
The Great Lakes recreation areas stand out in another important way. The counties that do not border a metropolitan center gained more population than counties adjacent to metro areas. In recreation counties not close to urban centers, the population gain was 0.79%, over 300% higher than rural recreation counties close to metropolitan areas.
At the national level, the opposite is true. The counties farther away from urban places tend to either lose population or grow at slower rates than rural places that border cities. Nationwide, rural counties not adjacent to an urban center lost .09% of their population between 2021 and 2022, while rural counties close to metro areas saw a gain of 0.02%, or 72,000 residents.
Boyle thinks this is because even the remote recreation towns in Michigan have urban conveniences, which might make them an attractive draw for people who can afford to be selective about where they live.
“[A lot of the smaller towns] have trails, coffee shops, brew pubs,” Boyle said. “I do think many of those places have developed enough with the kind of urban amenities that people really want. You don’t need to be in a metro anymore.”
Other rural recreation counties nationwide experienced the same phenomenon, but not as drastically. Between 2021 and 2022, rural recreation counties gained 31,000 more residents, a 0.49% increase from 2021. Recreation counties not adjacent to urban centers grew by 0.55%, while all other rural counties not adjacent to metro centers in the United States dropped by 0.1%.
Recreation-dependent counties are defined using a weighted index created by the USDA Economic Research Service. The index considers three components - 1) jobs; 2) earnings in entertainment, recreation, accommodations, food/drink, and real estate; and 3) the percentage of housing set aside exclusively for seasonal use. Recreation counties are counties with a weighted index one standard deviation or more above the mean. ERS provides a downloadable list of its county typology plus maps and descriptions of all county types.