Traverse City News and Events

What Does Northern Michigan Need Most?

By Craig Manning | Aug. 4, 2019

What are the most pressing needs within the entire five-county area? The Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation believes it now knows, after an extensive, months-long study. Its ambitious Community Needs Assessment has outlined three “Priority Areas of Opportunity”: education and schools, teens and young adults, and health/mental health.

According to Community Foundation President Dave Mengebier, the goals of the study were to give the foundation a better sense of how northern Michigan is doing and to identify the biggest opportunities for improvement within Grand Traverse, Antrim, Benzie, Kalkaska, and Leelanau counties.

"This has been a big effort at the Community Foundation, to start to benchmark how we're doing as a region and as a community against other communities within Michigan and across the country, using a variety of different measures,” Mengebier says. “From there, the question becomes, 'Alright, what are we going to focus on, and what are we going to try to work with other institutions on to try to have an impact?’”

Founded in 1992, the Community Foundation works to develop permanent endowments for a variety of different causes or organizations. One example is the Cleo M. Purdy Endowment, which over the past five years has granted $1.8 million to Central Lake schools to fund early childhood education efforts. The Community Foundation also has some discretionary funds of its own not earmarked for specific causes or organizations.

According to Alison Metiva, vice president of strategic engagement and programs for the Community Foundation, the recently completed Assessment will hopefully help the foundation direct its grant dollars and efforts to have the most impact.

"We started by looking at our community vision, and the goal of our board was that we wanted to have healthy, resilient, thriving communities,” Metiva says. “This project was a way for us to understand how we're currently doing toward that goal and how we can focus our efforts to get closer to achieving truly thriving communities."

To perform the study, the organization and local market research firm Avenue ISR synthesized information from dozens of existing datasets, ranging from Census data to local graduation rates. The results, Mengebier says, indicate a tale of two northern Michigans: one affluent, the other struggling with poverty.

"I think that anybody who has lived here for a while knows that you don't have to get too far outside of the Traverse City city limits to see some pretty intense levels of poverty,” Mengebier says. He points out Antrim County, where the median household income is $23,215. “And then you see all the attendant consequences of that: poor health; obesity; heightened rates of diabetes; teen pregnancy; substance and alcohol abuse; poor performance in the school systems; things like that. One of the things that we're really interested in is figuring out how we can impact these populations that are not enjoying the same quality of life that some of the wealthier members of our society are enjoying."

In the education space, Metiva says a key focus will be early childhood education. As of 2013, 40 percent of children in the five-county region were not “kindergarten-ready.” In Kalkaska County alone, that figure was at 59 percent. Those issues contribute to problems later on: 50 percent of students in the five-county region are not reading proficient by the end of third grade, and the area’s high school graduation rate is eight percentage points below the national average.

For teens and young adults, Mengebier says the focus is on “disconnected youth” – people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither working nor in school. The aim is to give these individuals the tools to either find employment or pursue an education. In the health and mental health space, the Community Foundation has two main goals: supporting affordable housing initiatives and improving access to primary healthcare and mental healthcare providers.

In each area, the Community Foundation has identified potential partners for maximum impact. To achieve early education goals, the foundation might team up with local school districts or Great Start programs. To target teen and young adult issues, organizations like Goodwill Industries, the YMCA, and the Homeless Youth Initiative will be crucial. For health and mental health, potential partners include Housing North, Munson, and even transportation solutions to help rural residents access care.

"These are data points that we alone aren't going to move,” Metiva says. “We aren't doing the on-the-ground work in these areas, but rather supporting with grants, or using our convening capacity, or sitting on committees to offer our input. These are big data points that the community more generally is going to impact. We're just one piece of the success in these areas."

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