Often Left Out, U.P. Ducks Michigan's Worst Woes If there's a Michigan map in your mind, it probably looks like a mitten. The Upper Peninsula — separated from the rest of the state by the Great Lakes — often gets left off the map entirely. While that can be irksome, the remote nature of Michigan's northern section can also insulate it from the rest of the state's economic distress.

Often Left Out, U.P. Ducks Michigan's Worst Woes

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

(Soundbite of water)

HANSEN: Today, you're going to hear some stories from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Chances are if there's a Michigan map in your mind, it looks like a mitten. Well, the U.P. is actually separated from the rest of the state by the Great Lakes and is sometimes left off the map.

State Representative MIKE LAHTI: You ask anybody from the U.P., have you ever seen a map of the state that cuts out your part of the U.P. or the whole U.P.? And they all would say yes.

HANSEN: State Representative Mike Lahti stands up for the U.P. in Michigan's legislature. Earlier this year, Lahti was appalled when he noticed that a Michigan Economic Development Corporation ad left the Upper Peninsula out.

Rep. LAHTI: It was a MEDC ad, which is shown nationwide, with Jeff Daniels, which promotes Michigan as a place to come for good business, good high-tech industries and also some tourist industries. And they finished the ad with just showing the Lower Peninsula on it. And the commercial, he says, come to Michigan, the green peninsula. Well, don't forget we've got two.

HANSEN: Lahti points out that the U.P. makes up 30 percent of the state even if it's only 3 percent of the population. So, he introduced a resolution to require all official maps of Michigan to include the Upper Peninsula. The bill passed this summer, and newer versions of the ad include both parts of the state.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man: Two peninsulas surrounded by great endless seas of freshwater. A place called Michigan.

HANSEN: Although, the U.P. now shares the map with the rest of Michigan, its economy is decidedly different. For example, it's not as tied to the auto industry as the Lower Peninsula. There are pockets of high unemployment in the U.P., but the economy there is relatively stable, despite the recession. Representative Lahti credits brain power.

Rep. LAHTI: We've got three good universities. We start with Lake Superior State, Northern Michigan University, Michigan Tech and a private school, Finlandia in Hancock. So, education is big. And because of the education, we're getting some companies moving in and utilizing the knowledge around the university.

HANSEN: Northern Michigan University was one of our first stops in the city of Marquette, Michigan. There's a Starbucks in the student union, one of the company's founders went to NMU. It's a good place to meet several Marquette business and economic leaders.

Ms. TAWNI FERRARINI (Director, Center for Economic Education and Entrepreneurship, Northern Michigan University): We have been somewhat protected from the woes of the Lower Peninsula because we're a more diversified economy. But then, we have some interesting issues.

HANSEN: That's Tawni Ferrarini, director of the Center for Economic Education and Entrepreneurship at Northern Michigan University.

Ms. FERRARINI: It is struggling, like most economies, especially when you put it in the context of the Michigan economy whole. Michigan leads the nation in unemployment. We've got Baraga County, where one out of every four people are unemployed, but then you look at Mackinac County and we see that have about 2 percent there because of the tourism surrounding the island, Mackinac Island.

HANSEN: It is surprising to come up and drive through Marquette and see more businesses open than there are closed. But there are unique businesses. There's a bingo supply store, for example, a historic photography place. What is it about mom-and-pop shops that are able to survive?

Ms. FERRARINI: Well, one of the things, because we're so remote up here, many people have relied on the technology to communicate with people all around the globe. So, you'll find, not so much with the bingo store, but with the historic, you know, photos or trophies or even safety shops, the Internet is our friend. And so, we're able to market not only to the people who reside in the area, but people who live outside of the United States as well as in different parts of the U.S.

HANSEN: The university has played a major role in developing that aspect of the economy, bringing in jobs in research and training a high-tech workforce. Northern Michigan University was one of the first in the country to mandate laptops for all of its students, and the university has been leading the effort to bring WiMax to Marquette - that's a wireless Internet network for the entire community.

Joe Esbrook is one of the people promoting that plan. He's the director of business and community development for a workforce development program called Michigan Works.

Mr. JOE ESBROOK (Director, Business and Community Development, Michigan Works): So, if you look at the Upper Peninsula, even though we are a sticks-and-stones economy — sticks meaning logging and stones meaning mining — we do have a lot of hidden secrets up here. And one of them is technology. We're probably one of the most wired rural regions in the United States. We are more diversified than the Lower Peninsula.

And that's one of the issues in Michigan is that the Lower Peninsula gets all the excitement - and it's bad excitement right now because of the auto industry - and all the pain and suffering that's going on there with the global economy. But we do have an independent organization up here of forward thinkers that are coming together and becoming more regional. And we realize that's probably the way we're going to combat the global economy and everything that's going on outside of the Unites States.

HANSEN: While high-tech developments and creative use of computers are essential to the economic survival of the Upper Peninsula, at heart, this is still a mining community. Again, Tawni Ferrarini.

Ms. FERRARINI: Surprisingly, it only accounts across the entire peninsula for about 4.5 percent of the total jobs here. But we have to take that within the context of the history of the U.P., because mining basically created the fabric on which all of us are moving today.

HANSEN: Representative Mike Lahti agrees. He says you can't write the history of the U.P. without mentioning the mines.

Rep. LAHTI: You know, we've had mining there since 1847, a couple years before the gold rush. And it was really booming around 1900, where there were thousands of people working there in the copper mines and iron mines around the Marquette/Ishpeming area and copper mines around Hancock and Houghton, where I'm from. And it was really a big producer. And they still have solid mining and iron mining. Copper mining is looked at again as prospects are happening again. But because of that past history and that past success, there are a lot of people here and they've moved away because of jobs left and they moved to Lower Michigan, so there's still a strong connection with people there.

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