County faces economic hurdles

MARQUETTE – Regional development is important to the well-being of Marquette County as a whole, said one of its top officials.

County Administrator Scott Erbisch spoke at the Lake Superior Community Partnership’s quarterly luncheon Tuesday at the Holiday inn in Marquette, focusing on economic challenges, the structure of county government and other topics.

Amy Clickner, LCSP chief executive officer, said Erbisch’s message is important because what the county faces in challenges and opportunities affects everyone.

“The budget they manage is enormous,” Clickner said. “The staff they manage and the variety of departments is enormous.”

Erbisch said many people don’t understand the structure of county government.

Counties, he noted, are administrative arms of the state that handle circuit and district courts, elections and other duties. About 75 percent of its services are mandated, and half of those mandated services are funded by local revenues, he said.

“And that’s one of the beefs that’s been ongoing with at least some of our commissioners for many years with the state, is that we need to up the game on that a little bit,” Erbisch said. “Pay us a little more. We shouldn’t be funding that.”

Counties also provide local government services such as property code enforcement, Sawyer International Airport and Sugarloaf Mountain, he said.

As part of his lesson in “County Government 101,” Erbisch mentioned the importance of understanding demographics.

“We track and follow through our planning department the demographics, because we feel that demographics really play closely into the economy that you have,” he said.

The county as a whole, he acknowledged, is aging faster than the national population, which is something businesses should recognize. Housing needs will need to be modified, and with a youth population shrinking, the county will face a potential labor shortage and have to import workers from other areas, he said.

“I know some are working here on broadening the skills of the youth around here to fit what we may be seeing in trends, but that’s something that businesses need to be cognizant of, employers of all kinds need to be looking at,” Erbisch said.

Marquette County’s population continues to grow slowly and is drawing people from regions with stable to shrinking populations, he said.

“Again, this is why we feel regional economic development matters, and those are things that are being focused on pretty heavily between Marquette city, Escanaba, Delta and Marquette counties,” Erbisch said. “NMU continues to keep the area age-diverse.”

Marquette County also is becoming a regional shopping center that attracts national stores, he said.

“We’re clearly on the radar of a lot of places, which is a really good thing, which is a really good thing, and so we hope that continues, even with the challenges coming,” Erbisch said.

Tax Tribunal cases with big box stores being valued at “dark stores” at lower rate could be considered one of those challenges.

Erbisch said about 20 businesses in the township are trying the same tactics that were successful in other cases, such as Lowe’s in Marquette Township.

That could hurt financially, he acknowledged, with tax dollars diminishing.

“The township, the county and the schools would be out $1.1 million for 2014,” Erbisch said. “That’s our potential loss. The scary thing about this, it isn’t just Marquette Township. Marquette city has the same thing happening, and it’s happening throughout the U.P., throughout the rest of the state. This problem is growing, and there hasn’t been a successful local government challenge to it yet.”

Still, there are positive trends, he acknowledged.

“The county has held its own since the recession began,” Erbisch said, with taxable values increasing from almost $2.2 billion in 2007 to $2.66 billion in 2013.

Clickner said it’s important for people to understand what’s going on in their counties and communities.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.