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While Between 1970 and 1990, Otsego County's population increased by more than 83 percent to almost 18,000 residents - about 21,000 people now call the county home.
Projections by the Michigan Department of Management and Budget indicate Otsego County's population will grow faster than any other county in the state, more than 3 percent annually, and the county's population will have reached almost 35,000 by the year 2020.Otsego County Population by Age 1970-1990
Picture While it's common knowledge among Michiganders that the Northern Lower Peninsula has undergone tremendous growth, most of the focus has been on the Lake Michigan shore, from Traverse City north. But for the past quarter-century, the communities of Otsego County have steadily broadened their tourist base while attracting new retailers, service providers and light industry. Since 1990, every community in the county has seen its population increase.
Like much of Northern Michigan, the cities and towns of Otsego County trace their roots to settlers seeking homesteads following the Civil War. "Otsego" is an Iroquois word meaning "meeting place," and the first significant community in the area was the village of Otsego Lake, founded in 1872. Otsego County was organized in 1875, with Otsego Lake Village as the county seat.
The county seat was eventually moved north to the village of Barnes, which was later renamed Gaylord in honor of A.S. Gaylord, the attorney representing the Jackson, Lansing & Saginaw Railroad. Other villages incorporated in the county during this era were Waters, Elmira, Vanderbilt and Johannesburg.
Picture The county's fertile land and productive forests were the foundation of its early economy. Sawmills sprang up along the shores of Otsego Lake, and farms dotted the rolling countryside. At the turn of the century, the Gaylord Manufacturing Company began producing wagons and other products for the lumber industry. The company later went on to manufacture the "Gaylord 30" automobile, of which about 300 were built between 1910 and 1920.
The bedrock underlying Otsego County also proved to be a valuable resource. Deposits from ancient seas included shale, limestone and dolomite. Natural gas and oil deposits were also found.
The introduction of the automobile into American life allowed the Otsego County region to capitalize on perhaps its strongest assets - its natural beauty and abundance of recreational opportunities. As new, improved highways provided easy, affordable access to the state's southern urban centers, tourism became - and remains - a major source of jobs and business opportunity, annually pumping tens of millions into the area economy.
Ostego County Average Per Capita Sales
Otsego area businesses, as a whole, average per capita sales higher than overall state averages. In 1992, for example, average county sales rates surpassed state averages in the catagories of building materials, garden supplies, food stores, gas stations, restaurants and bars. Figures for those businesses in Gaylord were especially high. Expenditures on building and garden materials were over 15 times greater than the state average, and restaurants and bars were six times greater. Clothing stores also fared well in Gaylord.
Otsego County's track record of success has encouraged new entrepreneurs to the area. Between 1980 and 1990, the county had the highest number of incorporations of any northern Michigan county, and so far this decade the county has one of the highest incorporation rates (number of incorporations per 100,000 residents) in the entire state.
Up until the early 1990s, most of the growth in retail sales was from the expansion of existing establishments. After 1992, however, an increase in building permits issued for new buildings indicated that the business areas of the county were running out of available commercial buildings for sale or lease, leading to a need for new construction.
Otsego County Annual Payroll by Business Group
Today, about 70 percent of Otsego County's workers are employed in service or retail jobs, many of them tied to the tourist trade. Annual visitors to the county exceed 400,000, and much of the traffic is destined for, or passes through, Gaylord. Strategically located at the intersection of 1-75 and M-32, the once-sleepy town has become a bustling vacation destination and crossroads of Northern Michigan commerce.
With four 1-75 interchanges within the county, residents, travelers, business people and truckers have easy highway access to the lower and upper peninsulas. Other north-south routes serving the county include U.S. 27 and U.S. 131.
Old U.S. 27 is now a scenic alternative route through the center of the county, connecting Gaylord, Vanderbilt, Otsego Lake, Waters and the counties of Crawford and Cheboygan. M-32, running east-west, links Gaylord, Johannesburg and Elmira. This busy highway stretches across the entire northern part of the state, carrying traffic between Traverse City on Lake Michigan to Alpena on Lake Huron.
The county's rail needs are met by Lake State Railroad. Using tracks leased from the Detroit & Mackinac Railroad, Lake State carries freight between Gaylord, Grayling, West Branch and Bay City, from where connections can be made to additional destinations via other lines.
The county airport, with its 6,500-foot paved runway, handles both prop and jet aircraft. Located southwest of Gaylord, the airport has fueling and repair facilities, and car rentals.
County residents receive police protection from the Gaylord Police Department, Otsego County Sheriff's Department and the Michigan State Police Department-Gaylord Post. Fire protection is provided by five volunteer fire departments, and the Otsego ambulance corps provides emergency service for the entire county.
Private suppliers provide county residents with electricity, natural gas, telephone, solid waste disposal and cable television. Recycling sites are scattered throughout the county, with door-to-door recycling available in Gaylord. The City of Gaylord supplies its residents and those in adjacent neighborhoods with water and sewage disposal. The rest of the county relies on individual wells and septic systems.
Gaylord not only serves as the region's main shopping district but, it is also the center of the county's medical services.
The recently-expanded Otsego Memorial Hospital, located in Gaylord, is staffed by primary-care doctors and specialists offering a range of medical services. Additional health services are provided by the District Health Department, Otsego County Department of Social Services, Northern Michigan Substance Abuse Services, a nursing home, clinics, labs and physical therapy centers.
Otsego County residents are especially proud of their schools. Within the county are three public school districts: Gaylord Community Schools, Vanderbilt Area Schools and the Johannesburg/Lewiston School District. St. Mary's School in Gaylord provides a Catholic education through 12th grade, and Otsego Christian School, also in Gaylord, enrolls students in grades 1-8. Other private schools include Calvary Baptist Academy and Grace Baptist Christian School. Among its neighboring counties, Otsego leads the region in educational attainment, having the fewest citizens without a high school diploma and the highest percentage of college graduates.
Perched more than 1,300 feet above sea level, Otsego County has the highest elevation in Michigan's lower peninsula. That fact, combined with its abundant annual snowfall, led Gaylord business leaders to promote the city as an "Alpine Village." The successful campaign resulted in many businesses adopting an Alpine architecture motif, and led to the creation of community events such as the annual summer Alpenfest. Gaylord also adopted a Swiss sister city, Pontresina.
Every year, all four seasons come to Otsego County in their respective splendor, bringing spring flowers, summer sun, fall colors and winter fun.
The first freezing temperature typically comes around the middle of September. A hard frost usually arrives the first week in October. The coldest month is January, with an average temperature 17.41 F. The thermometer typically stays above 32 F by the end of May. July is the warmest month, averaging 68 F. Summer, with its warm days and cool nights, is especially pleasant. In more than 45 years of record keeping, the annual average number of days with temperatures above 90 F is just three.
Precipitation is evenly distributed throughout the year. Nearly all precipitation in the winter months comes in the form of snow, and an average annual accumulation of 144 inches provides a sound base for skiing, snowmobiling and other winter activities.
Otsego County encompasses 239,600 acres, of which 1,900 acres are federal land and 82,000 acres are in the Pigeon River State Forest. This public land provides a wealth of year-round activities, from boating and camping to cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.
Otsego County's sparkling lakes, clear rivers and streams are another major attraction for visitors. The 1,964-acre Otsego Lake is the largest. In all, there are 135 miles of inland lakeshore, including 13.5 miles maintained for public use.
One of the most successful formulas for attracting visitors to Otsego county can be summed up in one word: Golf. The county now has 22 golf courses, all but six of which were built in the last 10 years. Featuring courses designed by world-renowned golf architects, the area has earned the title "Golf Mecca of the Midwest," and contributes $30 million to the area's economy. With so much to do, a beautiful environment and affordable land, it's no surprise that more and more visitors are deciding to make Otsego County their year 'round home. New residents quickly discover the county has government services, schools and health care providers that rival any in the state.