Northwest Michigan Seasonal Population Analysis

October 11, 2014
by Mary Beth Graebert, Mark Wyckoff and Lauren Bretz

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A report detailing the seasonal population fluctuations in the northwestern counties of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula is now available from the MSU Land Policy Institute (LPI). The Northwest Michigan Seasonal Population Analysis synthesizes data from a variety of sources to obtain a detailed monthly breakdown of the 2012 population for the counties of Antrim, Benzie, Charlevoix, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Manistee, Missaukee and Wexford. This report was prepared by LPI for Networks Northwest, formerly known as the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments.

This study updates a 1996 report by APB Associates, Inc., and the Planning & Zoning Center, Inc. (now the Planning & Zoning Center at MSU), which used similar data sources to estimate monthly population structures in the same 10 counties nearly 20 years ago. This new research offers an updated profile of population fluctuation in Northwest Michigan, which can help local businesses and policy makers to plan for changes in resource utilization and consumer demand throughout the year.

The report addressed five questions for each county:

  1. What is the current number of permanent residents?
  2. What is the average number of seasonal (second-home) residents each month?
  3. What is the average number of transient visitors (occupants of overnight accommodations) each month?
  4. What is the aggregate permanent, seasonal and transient population each month?
  5. How has the structure of the total population changed over time, particularly in relation to the study conducted in 1996?

Unsurprisingly, the study found that Grand Traverse County has the largest permanent population of the 10 counties, with 30% of the region’s total, followed by 11% each in Wexford and Emmet counties. Although it is widely known that Grand Traverse has the largest permanent population in the region, the distribution of second-home residents is quite different: Antrim, Emmet and Charlevoix counties have the largest shares with 15%, 14% and 12%, respectively. Of visitors staying in overnight accommodations, Grand Traverse captures 31%, followed by Emmet with 16% and Manistee with 12%. However, this breakdown varies between the three categories of overnight accommodations: hotels and motels, bed & breakfasts and campgrounds. While Grand Traverse attracts the lion’s share of hotel and motel guests with 39% of the regional total, its share of bed & breakfast visitors (29%) is close to that of Leelanau County (27%), and its share of campground visitors (18%) is nearly equal to Manistee County’s (17%). The dissimilarity of these distributions suggests that each county attracts a unique mix of visitors and residents who exhibit different accommodation preferences.

This study also charted monthly differences in seasonal (second-home) and transient (overnight) occupancy rates. For the region as a whole, seasonal population peaks in June, July and August at 85,772 residents per month, and it reaches its minimum in December, January and February at 11,530 residents per month. Similarly, the transient population peaks in July at 51,261 guests throughout the month, and its nadir is in January with 7,435 guests. Of the three types of overnight accommodations, hotels and motels capture the largest and most seasonally constant share of overnight visitors, followed by campgrounds and lastly bed & breakfasts. At the county level, Leelanau and Antrim experience the most dramatic seasonal fluctuations in transient occupancy, while Grand Traverse experiences the least.

Finally, this report examined long-term trends in the permanent, seasonal and transient populations of Northwest Michigan. As of 2012, the region’s permanent population was 299,938, up 17% from 1996; its average annual seasonal population was 35,172, up 14.5%; and its average annual transient population was 19,990, up 5%. Thus, while the season’s permanent and second-home populations have expanded significantly in the past two decades, overnight accommodations have seen only a small increase in guest volume, possibly as a result of the recent recession. Taken together, the three population sub-types indicate an annual average total population of 355,100 people in Northwest Michigan, which is approximately 50,000 more than in 1996.

Similarly to the 1996 assessment, the overall population peaks in July and is smallest in January, with a difference of about 93,322 people between these two months. This is equivalent to adding a city the size of Lansing, MI, to the region every summer season. All of these visitors demand public services and generate economic activity that requires advanced planning and mobilization of resources.Furthermore, the small growth rate of guests staying in overnight accommodations could indicate a shift toward greater permanence in the region, which has policy and economic implications that must be considered ahead of time.

Due to some limitations of this research, particularly its use of 1994 multipliers for the seasonal population, the LPI recommends a second phase of the study that would utilize further primary data collection as well as local interviews to improve estimation ability.

This study was made possible by funding from the Networks Northwest and Governor Snyder’s Regional Prosperity Initiative.