Senator Gary Peters hosts virtual roundtable discussion with U.P. leaders on infrastructure needs

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UPPER PENINSULA, Mich. (WJMN) – Senator Gary Peters heard from government officials as well as business and labor leaders from the Upper Peninsula on what infrastructure improvements would mean to residents of the U.P.

“We’re right now in the midst of discussions to pass a broad bipartisan, hopefully, infrastructure package dealing with a lot of the physical infrastructure whether it’s bridges, roads and other kinds of infrastructure related to that as well as human infrastructure,” said Peters. “Understanding that if you’re thinking about infrastructure, it is much broader than just roads and bridges as important as that is and that needs to be a priority there’s no question about that but in the 21st century we have to be thinking a whole lot broader and I certainly believe that’s how we have to approach this.”

Speakers representing needs for roadway infrastructure, education, internet access and more spoke to Peter’s about what they see as a need and some of the things they are working on or hope to do to improve infrastructure.

Gavin Leach, Vice President of Finance and Administration at NMU, says broadband internet is critical for the Upper Peninsula. Leach says they expanded the universities internet service to 113 communities in the U.P. during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The rural communities, in order for them to thrive they need broadband but I also think they just purely need broadband to survive long-term and I heard that as a part of Michigan’s 21st infrastructure commission town hall meetings throughout the Upper Peninsula,” said Leach. “One of their top two concerns was always broadband and access to it and affordable broadband, I heard critical components and they felt that if they didn’t have it their long-term survival was at risk … You know just two years ago on a study that it was 25% of households in the U.P. had little or no broadband service and that impacts everything that you mentioned from transportation to commerce to healthcare to education. We saw during COVID, the access to broadband was critical to ensure continuity of delivering school.”

Leach also mentioned the affordability of internet access is an important consideration. He brought up the points of whether there are data caps and limitations on what families can afford. Marty Fittante, CEO of InvestUP, agreed with the importance of broadband but added that it also contributes to talent acquisition and population growth in the Upper Peninsula.

“Since 1970 the Upper Peninsula has lost 48% of its k-12 population,” said Fittante. “I think more troubling, since 2000, we’ve lost 23% of our k-12 population. If you put that in a revenue perspective in today’s k-12 dollars per people that $175 million lost annually to Upper Peninsula students and Upper Peninsula schools. Imagine what the landscape would look like if we had those resources so I think from our perspective broadband is absolutely critical, it’s one of three needs that we have as you consider the infrastructure package, the other two won’t surprise you either and that is housing and it’s childcare.”

Fittante says if those things are addressed it would help the U.P. to compete. Brian Sarvello, career and technical education director for Marquette Alger Regional Educational Service Agency, also serves as the chairman of the U.P. manufacturing talent consortium. Sarvello says they are working on developing a pipeline to their manufacturers and that high school career and technical education is now becoming a critical component of workforce development.

“In the U.P. we’ve been able to partner with our local employers to provide really robust work-based learning experiences and on-the-job training opportunities for our high school students through internships, apprenticeship opportunities that I mentioned earlier,” said Sarvello. “Together we share the responsibility of developing that exceptional workforce for the U.P. and our great state of Michigan.”

Sarvello says his greatest concern is young human infrastructure and getting it right the first time through the education system. He says their middle college program helps make college affordable for students and families by offering an accelerated path to an associates degree.

“The other way I think we’re going to get this right is through what we’re working on right now through our U.P. Michigan Works! colleagues and that’s our high school youth apprenticeship program that we’re developing a model for our state that we really think is going to be a game-changer for a lot of employers and bring tomorrow’s talent to them today but more importantly for our students,” said Sarvello. “Provide them with not only a good college foundation that on-the-job training that’s so critical so they’ll have the knowledge and they’ll have the skills that our employers are looking for.”

Chris Standerford, leader of a STEM center on NMU’s campus, regional director for the MiSTEM network, and chair for the career and education advisory committee council working with Michigan Works!, says building any mechanisms to connect businesses and communities with the K-12 education system will be key.

“Another piece I’d like to highlight is addressing the teacher shortage again if we’re talking about infrastructure and training one great example we’re hopeful for at Northern Michigan University partnered with Michigan Technological University on the Department of Defense grant to explore an apprenticeship model for earning a teacher credential or a teaching degree so we’re hopeful for that we’ll have some good success on that grant and other innovative approaches like that to address that talent pipeline in addition to the other pipelines that we desperately need,” said Standerford.

Standerford says they have leveraged grants and other opportunities for training and education but it still feels like a grassroots effort with no formal infrastructure support.

Senator Peters stressed that looking at infrastructure from a 21st-century point of view is important.

“As I look at infrastructure, in this country, we all know that we have significant needs but if you look at global experts who actually assess the infrastructure of countries all around the world, right now the United States ranks number 13 in the world,” said Peters. “13 in the world! That is outrageous, it is certainly unacceptable to me as I’m sure it’s unacceptable to everybody on this call. It’s unacceptable to be ranked number 13 in the world when you’re the United States of America, we always need to strive to be the best, to be number one, anything less than that in my mind is simply unacceptable and that’s why this infrastructure package is so important.”

The roundtable lasted for 45 minutes and concluded with comments on roadways from Aaron Johnson, MDOT’s Superior Region engineer. He says there are many areas to focus on in the Upper Peninsula regarding roadways. Johnson says there are unique circumstances like weather that impact the roadways and a permanent solution for funding infrastructure is needed. Some commentary was also made on the need for improving access to charging stations for electronic vehicles traveling in the Upper Peninsula.

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