Skip to main content

PHOTO RELEASE: MDARD Director Gary McDowell & Deputy Director of Office of Rural Development Sarah Lucas Hold Roundtable to Discuss Rural Priorities

The Office of Rural Development will improve rural access to existing resources while filling gaps in programs and funding

TRAVERSE CITY, MI Today, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) Director Gary McDowell and Deputy Director of the Office of Rural Development (ORD) Sarah Lucas held a roundtable to discuss the initial priorities that ORD will be addressing. Those priorities include access to high-speed broadband, affordable housing, and combating workforce decline.

"The Office of Rural Development allows us to focus on reinvigorating Michigan's rural economies and being a partner in addressing the real issues that rural Michiganders face daily," said McDowell. "Under Sarah's leadership, I am confident that this office will start to make real and long-lasting positive change within our rural Michigan communities."

"Our rural communities, and their markets, workforce, natural resources, and industry are vital to Michigan's prosperity, but they continue to face unique opportunities and challenges, which is why is why this office is so important," said Lucas. "Rural Michigan's success will require coordinated, long-term action from agencies and stakeholders across the state. I'm grateful that MDARD and our partners are committed to taking that action, and I'm excited about the opportunity we have to focus on rural Michigan."

An estimated 900,000 Michiganders in rural areas lack fixed broadband connection at home, and 77% of households are without access to minimum broadband standards are rural communities. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has shown that high-speed Internet is essential for business, education, work, access to health care, and population attraction.  

Investments in housing infrastructure, especially in rural communities, are crucial as Michigan’s economy thrives. As businesses drive new economic activity in rural areas of Michigan, we must take steps to ensure that Michiganders have access to safe and affordable housing options. 

While Michigan’s workforce continues to evolve, the workforce and general population within rural communities continue to decrease. As of 2019, the population is declining in over half of Michigan’s rural counties. This is a multifaceted issue that ORD will address by improving rural access to existing resources while filling gaps in programs and funding. Additionally, ORD programming will prioritize efficient use of public resources and tangible outcomes on priority rural issues. 

By creating the Office of Rural Development, the Whitmer-Gilchrist Administration recognizes the unique challenges and opportunities in the state’s rural communities, as well as the need to implement sound policies and investments that put Michiganders first.

“We are thrilled to have Sarah Lucas leading the new Office of Rural Development. As a former Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance partner, Sarah has extensive experience and knowledge of issues affecting rural communities that will greatly benefit rural Michigan. Traverse Connect looks forward to working alongside her to advocate for crucial funding to improve the quality of life in rural communities,” said Warren Call, president and CEO of Traverse Connect.

“The excitement and optimism that we feel with the news that Sarah Lucas has been named the Director of the Office of Rural Development and that the Office has now set a list of initial priorities is undoubtedly shared by stakeholders and institutions in rural communities across the State.  Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to undertake this effort – hardworking, strategic, thoughtful and a collaborator at heart," said Marty Fittante, chief executive officer of Invest UP. "We remain grateful to the Governor and Director Gary McDowell for taking these next steps with the Office and appreciate that our partners in the legislature, especially the U.P. delegation, are presently working to ensure that the Office will be adequately funded to carry out these priorities. With Sarah’s leadership, and the Administration’s commitment to these priorities, the Office of Rural Development is now positioned to be a national leader on rural prosperity as Michigan now has a dedicated, singular, systematic focus towards solutions for the many unique and complicated challenges that we are facing in the Upper Peninsula and across the rural regions of the State.”

For more information, please visit


Photo: MDARD Director Gary McDowell & Deputy Director of Office of Rural Development Sarah Lucas Hold Roundtable