A bipartisan plan to tackle infrastructure issues to spur Michigan’s tourism looks likely, if Republicans and Democrats can clear one roadblock.
ST. IGNACE, Mich.—Beautiful shots of Michigan’s lake shores or forests or waterfalls set to the voice over provided by a Michigan-born celebrity are iconic in Michigan tourism. It’s the magic of Pure Michigan. The ad campaign was as prolific as it was ripe for memes, but it also highlighted the important tourism and hospitality business that many communities are built on.
From nationally renown destinations like Mackinac Island or the Sleeping Bear Dunes to hidden treasures like the (allegedly) record-holding St. Clair River boardwalk or the musical fountain in Grand Haven, Michigan has a surprising amount to offer as a tourist destination.
As a result, Michigan has a large hospitality and tourism economy, and with the pandemic in its waning days in the United States and all pandemic protections no longer needed in Michigan, there’s just one thing left to do on the road to Michigan’s tourism revitalization—actually repairing the road itself.
Michiganders are looking for better-paying jobs when they return to the jobs market, and the infamous infrastructure problems plaguing the state need to be addressed. Michigan could take aim at both problems with one approach: public works.
The premise is hardly without precedent. During other times the American jobs market needed revitalization, similar programs have been done from Democrat Franklin Roosavelt’s New Deal to the interstate highway system built during Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s administration. Public works programs have a bipartisan history of success being exemplified by Michigan’s leaders today.
For instance, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the pandemic disproportionately hit the tourism industry and hospitality sector, and that funds should be used to help tourism-reliant communities rebound. She pointed to a $264 million backlog of maintenance requests at 103 parks, which had about 35 million visitors last year. That’s about 12 times normal spending, aimed at getting Michigan more tourist-ready.
“I’m proposing a historic investment to tackle this backlog and to modernize our parks, to improve access, to preserve them for generations to come,” Whitmer said while announcing the proposal at Straits State Park in St. Ignace, near the Mackinac Bridge.
The bridge Gov. Whitmer spoke near, on the other hand, exemplified another way those funds could help Michigan’s notoriously poor infrastructure. While the Mackinac Bridge is able to maintain it’s mighty status thanks to charging tolls, most Michigan bridges aren’t so fortunate.
Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature, seemingly in rare alignment with priorities of the Democratic Gov. Whitmer and President Joe Biden, proposed using $1.5 billion of unspent COVID relief funds on repairing Michigan’s bridges. All in all, that proposal hopes to address decay at around 400 local bridges across Michigan. It also includes repairs on some railway crossings.
“It’s going to last 50, 60, 70 years,” said state Sen. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City). “It’s not partisan. … This has been [a] long time brewing. This is the kind of stuff we need to get done.”
He said, for those reasons, infrastructure is “good spending.”
That kind of major infrastructure investment is the kind of thinking behind Biden’s American Jobs Plan, which would aim to use infrastructure projects like parks, bridges, and rail crossings as a means of reigniting the job market with jobs that pay well and require minimal expertise.
But attempts to use the American Rescue Plan funding—which gave American families and small businesses COVID relief—may run into problems. Because Michigan wound up with an unexpected surplus after some tightrope work to pass last year’s budget, the state may not be able to allocate the money it got from COVID relief to infrastructure projects. The state is investigating it’s options to achieve its ambitious bipartisan plans for the money.
“We understand and agree with the priority of investing in our bridges and look forward to working with members on this important issue as we work through the budget office,” state budget director Dave Massaron said. “We will need to review the proposed investment for [American Rescue Plan] compliance as we do for any federal funds.”
Schmidt is optimistic, though.
“We can find a way to do this,” he said. “And look at the good-paying jobs it creates. … Michigan families, businesses, taxpayers get something—pun intended—concrete.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.