Community Enhancement Survey results revealed

ALPENA — An Alpena Community College class and The Sunset Project teamed up to conduct the Northeast Michigan Community Enhancement Survey in March, and results have been released.

Tim Kuehnlein, instructor of the ACC PLS 222 State and Local Government class, gave insights into what the results mean, and how the survey findings can benefit the community.

The 2024 Northeast Michigan Community Enhancement Survey Data Report published on April 18 details the results and analysis.

The ACC students worked with Nick Poli and Gavin MacDonald of The Sunset Project, and Mary Ellen Jones, Rural Regenerator Fellow with Springboard for the Arts, a nonprofit arts service organization based in St. Paul, Minnesota, committed to advancing the role of art, culture, and creativity in rural development and community building.

Participants in the online survey included 323 people of all ages, with the most participants, 81, in the 70+ age group, representing just over 25% of respondents. The remaining age groups included 71 in age group 59 to 69, 53 in age group 48 to 58, 37 in age group 37 to 47, 30 in age group 26 to 36, and 51 people age 25 or younger.

The purpose of the survey was to address the evolving landscape of Northeast Michigan, aiming to understand the diverse wants and needs of current residents, and take their responses into consideration to be integrated into community development initiatives.

“Developed collaboratively by The Sunset Project, Alpena Community College, and local organizations, this survey hopes to serve as a vital tool for informed decision-making and strategic planning on both a hyper-local, local, and regional level,” the survey’s executive summary states.

“Fifty percent of those who responded made $58,000 or more per year,” Kuehnlein said. “That’s considerably above the median household income for our region.”

He said he would have preferred between 500 and 2,000 participants to more accurately encompass the population of the region, but he still thinks conclusions can be drawn from the smaller sample size.

Kuehnlein said some interesting data came out of the survey, and he started by talking about the younger participants.

“What do you want Alpena to look like when you grow up, so to speak, is how we phrased it,” he said. “They wanted to preserve what we have, emphasizing arts and scenery, peace and tranquility, the size — the smallness, they value the past, proximity, access to events, downtown development, cleanliness, the diversity of restaurants, community development, more art kept popping up, more gyms, restaurant options, family stuff, more housing, filling empty development, and sustainable produce, gardening, and farming.”

He said the above items were mentioned throughout the survey, regardless of age group, but there were some differences in responses.

“Although, I do think there is a generational gap,” he said. “It probably has more to do with the self-perception of whether younger people are being heard about the types of things that they might want.”

He said he saw three major themes come out of the survey data.

“People want opportunity to engage with other people,” Kuehnlein said. “That was really strong in the general survey results. And they also value the outdoors, and they want festivals and things that are happening outdoors where people can come together and interact with one another. And that was from young and old. The young people want engagement opportunities.

“The other thing that came out of this, the second point, is housing, and that took me by surprise,” he said. “Because this is a study more geared towards the aesthetics of community, and so forth, but it dawned on me that people like creating a sense of place. If you don’t have your own home, and you live in a community, or if you’re not happy with your home, or you can’t find a house that you can just make home, it’s like, you have to settle for whatever’s available, and there’s such a shortage, apparently, that people are probably dissatisfied.”

He added that you can’t begin to feel at home in your community if you are not happy in your current lodging situation.

“It was interesting how frequently this came up,” Kuehnlein said.

One of the questions was: “What do you believe is the most essential need in our community?”

“Housing was number one,” Kuehnlein said, adding that it was across the board, regardless of the respondent’s age.

“And then the last point, the bigger picture, is the generational gap,” he added. “One of the questions, towards the end of the survey, it’s about quality of life and feeling valued.”

He read another of the questions: “How satisfied are you with the amount of youth-based activities in your area?”

“I know, from students, they want more,” he said. “I hear it from lots of people, even outside of this survey. People are wanting to see more for young people to do in our community.”

He said another question read: “In your opinion, what is the best approach to encouraging more youth involvement in community activities?”

“The top three responses were: Ask them what interests them — Don’t do it for them and expect that they’re going to find it fun; Make activities engaging and entertaining; and Involve them in the planning and implementation,” Kuehnlein said.

“We have to figure out, as older generations, how do we get youth involved so that they feel more invested? Because they want to be, but we’ve got to find that connection,” Kuehnlein said. “When I step back from this, and the dust settles, I feel compelled to bridge the generational gaps, to perpetuate these conversations, and get these generations together more.”

He said one way to help younger people get involved would be for governing boards and nonprofit organizations to designate a youth representative role to give them an opportunity to serve the community in a meaningful way. He said the Alpena Downtown Development Authority has adopted this practice, and he thinks it could be beneficial to other boards and organizations.

He said boards and governing bodies should “figure out a way to formally integrate youth representation … Just the fact that you have an established presence with a youth voice can really go a long way,” Kuehnlein said. “Our Community Foundation does a really great job with YAC — Youth Advisory Councils.”

The survey results “can help drive nonprofits and government agencies, like planning commissions,” he added. “It can help start the conversation that drives what we focus on, and what we try to do in meeting some of these perceived needs.”

In giving presentations on the survey to various community organizations, Kuehnlein said, “There was a lot of sense of affirmation that things that are happening are going down the right path.”

Reach Lifestyles Editor Darby Hinkley at dhinkley@thealpenanews.com, or call 989-358-5691.


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