Thriving or surviving? Small villages in the area eye growth as a way to remain sustainable

Among the many small town and villages throughout Mecosta and Osceola counties, officials from Barryton and Hersey are looking at ways for population growth and stability in their communities. (Pioneer File Photo)

BARRYTON — Far from the off-ramps of highways, big box stores and lines of restaurants of a city, small towns and villages throughout Mecosta and Osceola counties are home to many who work in Big Rapids, Evart or Reed City but enjoy the small-town atmosphere.

While officials in both cities and villages face their own unique challenges, they do share something in common: The need to grow.

Whether it’s an increase in economic activity, new business or population, the future of small villages depend on what is being done now, said James Soriano, village president of Barryton.

“Growth is the only surefire way,” he said. “We’re not getting any increases from state revenue. We have to look more toward promoting the village and the area around the village to bring more people into the village that would support a higher level of commercial businesses.

“We’re always going to have the ma and pa stores, and they’re definitely great. They keep us alive, so people don’t have to travel all the way to Mount Pleasant or Big Rapids for something they can get here.”

Serving in some capacity on Barryton’s village board since 2010, Soriano said the village of nearly 300 residents can’t expand its property boundaries, so the focus is on the village and surrounding area.

Those driving through Barryton are greeted by its welcome sign. The small village of Barryton is among many small villages around Mecosta and Osceola counties looking at ways to grow for long-term sustainability. (Pioneer File Photo)

“Barryton is the hub for the 49305 zip code,” he said. “People come to the village to get their mail, fuel and food. The village is pretty small when it comes to boundaries, but the population of the area just outside the village limits is much bigger.”

Nearly 30 miles away in southern Osceola County, Hersey Village President Robin Marvel considers growth as a way for residents to come together to look to the future.

“As a village, as a board, it’s important to think about and share ideas about the benefits to the village in the long run,” she said. “These small villages like Hersey make up America. We all have different ideas and plans, but we all want the same thing: To make Hersey into a great community.”

Marvel said many of the village’s 380 residents are comprised of generational families, with grandparents, their children and their grandchildren living relatively close to each other.

That’s what they want, Marvel added.

“(The residents) aren’t just my neighbors and friends, many of them are family,” she said. “That’s what’s best about living in a small towns. We know our neighbors and are there to help them when they need it.”

Osceola County Community and Economic Development Director Dan Massy said there are major differences in community and economic development between cities and villages.

“Economically, it’s important to remember things are regional,” he said. “If you’re looking at employment, it’s regional.”

While cities can accommodate potential development and industry, Massy said small villages and towns need to rely on open communication between officials and residents, so everyone has an idea about what is happening.

“It’s more about community development than, say, economic development for small towns,” he said. “There’s a focus on the local businesses on the main street. They are basically supporting small retail.”

The most important thing when thinking about the future, Marvel said, is looking to improve and maintain what already is in the village.

“Improvement includes road work,” she said. “Up until last summer, we hadn’t had anything done to the roads in 20-plus years. This year, there’s $30,000 budgeted to go to road work.”

Both Soriano and Marvel believe focus on amenities like the Hersey and Chippewa rivers, libraries, updated parks and strong community groups and organizations, to go along with maintained infrastructure like roads, will keep their villages moving forward.

Hersey Congregational Church is one of two churches in the small village in southern Osceola County. Hersey Village President Robin Marvel said the churches and community organizations and events help create an atmosphere of community for residents. (Pioneer file photo)

“We should also focus on making our river and millpond more accessible,” Soriano said. “There used to be great fishing here, but now that has gone to the wayside because (the river) doesn’t flow like it used to.”

Those efforts, both say, include finding ways to receive funding, whether it comes from state programs, grants or nonprofit organizations.

“I’m working on learning how to write and submit grants so we are able to to expand our campground and make that a more valuable place for campers,” Marvel said. “There aren’t that many outside (funding) sources for small villages, but there are some.”

One important piece of planning, Soriano explained, is making sure the village has a clear vision of the future.

“(The board is) reworking our master plan,” he said, noting the last version was completed around 1999. “It included a lot of good things looking forward. Nothing is really out of date, but our village has grown beyond what the master plan could have predicted.”

One example, Soriano said, is the 13-acre park with a walking trail that leads to the edge of the Chippewa River, which was not mentioned in the village’s master plan.

“The master plan now is going to have to focus on how we’re going to entice people to want to be here,” he said. “The key is population. No one is going to come and bring a McDonald’s or anything like that unless there’s population growth.”

Soriano also believes the village’s zoning has to be routinely reviewed.

“The village doesn’t own properties and cannot control what businesses can come in,” he said. “What the village can control is making sure people know what properties are available in and outside the village.”

One thing Barryton has that Hersey does not, is a school.

“Having the school in the village is big, especially for people who want to be close to the school because of their kids,” he said. “People outside the village, from Chippewa Lake and Sears, they come to get their kids, stop for gas, get their meats from Mackersie’s — everyone gets a little piece of that.”

It is not, however, a disadvantage for Hersey, Marvel said.

“We do a lot of community events, food drives, Heritage Days and we do have the two churches, which really help connect the community, and bring people back to visit family or friends,” she said.

Marvel is hoping to network with other small village officials from around the area, so they can learn about challenges and successes from each other.

“Over the last year, I’ve learned a lot from the Marion village treasurer and clerk, and Mark Wilson, in Evart,” she said. “It’s been very valuable help to me.”

While not every resident will applaud changes to their small-town atmosphere, Soriano said it is inevitable.

“You have to have some sort of growth, or everything stays the same,” he said. “With state revenue sharing being a strong funding source, and a portion of it based on population, it’s important.

“If there were a situation where four or five houses decided to sell and some sort of business came in, I would foresee some people would not want it because growth is scary; but it’s also necessary.

“On the flip side, if that did happen, we still would be Barryton. People still do look for places like Barryton to live. We would still be a quaint, little town.”


Posted by Brandon Fountain

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