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Shauna Fite: Benzie’s Opportunity SummitPrint

Thriving Communities | March 3, 2009 | By Shauna Fite

Over 60 people filled the PRA Bingo Hall, as it’s known in Benzie County, on a blustery Saturday to discuss ways to mend and build relations among county and township governments. Snow was flying, and so were ideas as an impressive lineup of presenters talked about how food, farming, and energy are shaping our local economy.

The lively gathering was Benzie County’s second annual Summit for Intergovernmental Communication and Cooperation. The group formed at the first ICC summit now works throughout the year on improving communication and cooperation among county and local governments and Benzie residents.

This year, speakers discussed how broadband, bio-fuel, alternative energyentrepreneurial agriculture, and viticulture can build a stronger, more stable, year-round economy.

It was particularly interesting to hear how these issues relate to where I live, eat, and work—Benzie County.

For example, I learned that 25 percent of available land in Benzie County is suitable for growing vinifera grapes—the good ones, most sought after by winemakers! That could be a great way to attract entrepreneurial farmers to our area, and our county’s planners should consider that as they rewrite Benzie’s zoning ordinance.

And, I also learned that Benzie is now writing a wind-energy ordinance to facilitate small-scale wind turbines. If it’s done correctly, the ordinance could open up a whole new set of economic opportunities for many county residents.

After the Mayfair Tavern of Elberta catered a delicious lunch featuring products from Benzie farmers and producers, we broke into small workgroups to discuss smart growth, broadband, affordable housing, grant writing, and communication. Each group came up with specific strategies for moving its issue forward. The county will soon publish those strategies and share them with the general public.

According to Benzie County Planning Commission Chair Kathy Ralston, one of the event’s organizers, coming up with and sharing good ideas is something Benzie really needs to do.

“When the mechanisms that create good communication flow aren’t in place, great ideas never really get off the ground or see the light of day,” said Ms. Ralston, who leads the ICC Committee. “The goal of the ICC in hosting a cooperative summit is to provide the space for representatives from all perspectives throughout our community to come together, learn, share ideas and collaborate. These ideas are likely to become reality only when communication and cooperation prevail.”

So, we all know this communication and cooperation thing has been a problem for Benzie’s county and local governments—from lack of transparency to lack of manners. Will this type of meeting help solve these issues?

Well, I think it’s a start. It’s refreshing to see a group doing something proactive instead of merely reacting to problems. When people discuss these topics in a neutral format, they can focus on possibilities and opportunities instead of the obstacles that accompany any challenge, innovative idea, or even public meetings.

So, I applaud the ICC, particularly Kathy and her project partner, Sharron May, for putting us in a room to discuss big issues affecting Benzie County. The biggest lesson here: Get involved!

So, elected officials, business owners, parents, students, everyone: Take these opportunities to get educated on the issues and talk about solutions. Take these opportunities to work side by side with your neighbors to build a stronger Benzie County!

Get involved!