Cass, Berrien counties face similar challenges

Published 3:54 pm Sunday, August 25, 2013

By six “vital measures” of regional performance, Berrien and Cass counties stack up similarly statistically, although manufacturing remains the main sector in Cass while it has been eclipsed by health care in Berrien.

The League of Women Voters of Berrien and Cass Counties heard Friday noon at Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve outside Niles from John Egelhaaf, executive director of tri-county Southwest Michigan Planning Commission (SWMPC) since June 2003, about how this region aligns with other parts of the country on such “columns” of support as population vitality, economic strength, personal prosperity, community well-being, lifelong learning and governmental fiscal stability.

This was the first public presentation of a themed document delving deeper than the census. About 50 people attended.

“To me,” he said, “the heart of a lot of this is if you’re looking to grow your economy, it’s important to diversify. We have a potentially stronger agrarian economy in Berrien County that we need to do better with. We’ve been identifying agriculture as critically important to that economy, but there’s a lot of work to be done and jobs derived. We’re looking to restore the value chain for agriculture. We lost a lot of processing. After we grow our product, we put it in a truck and it goes away. We need to keep it in this region, wash it, cut it, package it and ship it within this region. I think there’s real opportunity. The demand side of the equation suggests that’s a good place for us to invest our energy. We have fewer acres in production, but the value of the crops which come off of it puts us in a much better place. We’re in the lower half of acreage, but farther up in the group for the value of our product.”

Egelhaaf, with a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Massachusetts, jokes he’s a “planscape executect.” His 45-minute presentation touched on half of the data while mostly omitting Van Buren County.

His regional planning commission is one of 14 such agencies in Michigan and particularly provides non-profit assistance with transportation, environmental issues, economic development, community planning and recreation.


Population vitality


“Things start getting interesting quickly” gauging population trends and migration, he said. “In 1950, we were about 44 percent urban and 50 percent township.”

Township growth peaked about 1980 while city populations declined.

“That trend continued all the way through the 2010 census,” Egelhaaf said. “As a people, we have pushed out to the edges of our geography and dispersed ourselves,” challenging revenue-limited government service providers. “You see it in Berrien and Cass as well.”

Tax records indicate intra-regional migration, or pretty close, although Berrien is more diverse. People come to Berrien from Florida and the Southwest as well as Chicago and Indiana. They leave for Florida, Texas, Chicago and Detroit.

“There is a net exodus of individuals with high school diplomas or higher in Berrien and Cass,” Egelhaaf said, “that brain drain everybody screams about. Van Buren actually gained. Population loss isn’t necessarily a result of being historically manufacturing and agricultural. There are a lot of other factors. We’re losing more than we’re gaining of folks who make less than $10,000 a year. Cass County very similar, with a net gain at the top end of the earnings sector, but weak at $15,000 to $25,000. We’re losing Millennials who are relatively highly educated, where Newport News (Va.) is drawing them in. Berrien County is losing them much faster than our peers. Similarly in Cass.”

Berrien County’s senior population over age 65 “is higher than most,” he said. “When you reduce population density and connect it to an aging population, you have people farther away from critical services and infrastructure — which is a challenge when mobility decreases. Folks no longer able to drive are stranded far away from services they need, burdening government with the expense of bringing them. Those trends going in opposite directions is not healthy.”

Of course, many residents lack access to a vehicle, particularly in Niles and Benton Harbor, where that number reaches 25 percent and public transit offers “their last, best hope. There are four transit providers in Berrien County. It is the only county in the state with four. We wrote a successful grant for $173,000 to study how we can make those four into one to try to serve Berrien County better. We’re in the third year of that three-year study.”

Twenty-three percent of Berrien’s population is under 18, compared to 24 percent nationally.

Households with families — related by marriage or blood — “is relatively low” in Berrien compared to Cass and other counties.

Racially, Berrien “distinguishes itself with a much greater variety” than Cass.

“Berrien consistently lost population between 2000 and 2010,” Egelhaaf said. “Cass growth is particularly located in townships near inland lakes.”


Economic strength,

personal prosperity


“Our counties didn’t compensate as well as the country as a whole” when manufacturing declined during recessions in 2002 and 2008. “Yes, we’ve lost manufacturing, but it’s still a very significant part of our economy,” said Egelhaaf, who is speaking in San Francisco Monday to the National Association of Development Organization.

“Those two recessions were rough on us. Cass had some nice employment growth between ’90 and 2000. Berrien was essentially stable. If you’re exceeding 30 percent of your household income for housing, you’re pushing over a line you shouldn’t be pushing over. Many pockets in our region exceed 30 percent” for rent.

“The average income loss between 2000 and 2010 is $7,867 for Berrien County, $10,596 for Cass County, which is quite dramatic and quite large relative to peers,” Egelhaaf said. “The number of seniors living in poverty is about 9.5 percent in the U.S., 9 1/4 in Berrien. Cass is doing much better than its peers. Total percent of the population in poverty, 17 percent in Berrien County versus 15 percent in the U.S. and 15 percent in Cass.”

Teen births of 47 percent in Berrien and 43 percent in Cass exceed the national average.

“We’re heavy relative to our peers, even in Michigan,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do with obesity, which goes hand in hand with diabetes. Almost 11 percent of our adults have diabetes, significantly above the national average at 9.2; almost 10 percent in Cass.”

Almost 16 percent of Berrien citizens under 65 lack health insurance, 15 percent in Cass.

The League has grown to more than 115 members — of which 25 percent are men.