April Fools’ Day: Leelanau County solves workforce housing crisis

Innovative new program puts waiters, clerks, housekeepers in every extra bed

From staff reports

This coming July, Shipwreck Café owner Steve Nowicki won’t have to log 200-hour weeks together with his staff of four, throwing together sandwiches and slinging pizzas as fast as a hummingbird for thousands of hungry tourists headed for packed beaches in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. 

Nope. Nowicki will be on his fishing boat out on Lake Michigan, catching lake trout, playing euchre and enjoying his newfound freedom. His crew of 20 workers will do the hard work of feeding Shipwreck’s customers.

For that he can thank an innovative new public-private program that will launch this spring in Leelanau County, which advocates and naysayers both agree will immediately eliminate the peninsula’s workforce housing crisis.

Here’s why the program was needed. Businesses need workers, like bad. They can pay those workers, because there’s plenty of money changing hands in Leelanau County in July. But those workers have nowhere to stay. Because how could you afford to buy a $600,000 home, or pay $3,000 per month in rent, when you make $20/hour? You can’t. So those businesses have had to push through the busy summer months with only a quarter of the workers they otherwise needed. And guys like Steve had to work …. real … hard (no time to play euchre).

Here’s how the program works (Or “Here’s the deal … In fact” to borrow a couple Bidenisms):

Every bed—yeah, every single bed—in every room in every house in Leelanau County gets filled. Doesn’t matter how big the McMansion on Lake Leelanau or Glen Lake is, doesn’t matter how wealthy or how private the owner is, doesn’t matter how frequently or how seldom they visit their second/third/fourth home in the County, every bed gets filled. If beds in a big house are not filled, local taxes go up … a lot. Like 1,000%! How’s that for incentive?

(Look for coverage in our next faux-edition about how the County will spend those extra tax revenues … like buying Sugar Loaf and making it a public, shareholder-owned ski resort, or something like that.)

OK, that was the stick. Now for the carrot.

Steven Richardson, who owns a ginormous house at Centennial Pointe on Lake Leelanau, didn’t dig the program at first. He called it words like “intrusive” and “government overreach” even “Maoist”. But after a few weeks of sharing his 36 spare bedrooms with local service workers who keep the tourism economy humming in Leland and Suttons Bay, Richardson began to enjoy the camaraderie he developed with the 20- and 30-somethings.

“These millennial wippersnappers are fun!” he said. “They taught me about Instagram and Snapchat, about tiny houses and wwoofing. …. I think I might even follow some of them to New Zealand next March to work on an organic farm.”

Richardson added that his musical and literary tastes have improved considerably by sharing his football field-sized dwelling with roommates young enough to be his grandchildren. He is now hip to raves in Berlin, surfing in Nicaragua. You know, that kind of stuff.

Plus, when he motors his 1600s era Chris Craft to the Riverside Inn for fresh-caught lobster and cocktails, he knows the dockside service will be prompt, and with a smile. Because the Riverside will have a large enough staff this summer.

“We thought the improved service at area establishments would entice wealthy homeowners with extra space to share those rooms,” said Gertie Samsinger, who concocted this workforce housing program together with the Leelanau League of Women Voters. “It’s paying off!”

Last year, the League shared the program with the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners, who adopted it—after a painstaking process—along with individual Township Boards. Those local units of government hope that seasonal tourism economies around the country will adopt the “Leelanau Way”.

Happy April Fool’s Day. Sorry if you believed this story.