". . . it only takes one voice, at the right pitch, to start an avalanche." - Dianna Hardy, Return of the Wolf
After listening to the anti-mining crowd go on and on about how great the tourism economy is around the Ely area, and then reading the awful opinion piece written by Marshall Helmberger I couldn’t take it anymore. So my wife and I decided to take pen and paper in hand and took a tour of the communities of Ely, Tower/Soudan and Babbitt to see for ourselves how things really look. The idea was to count homes for sale or vacant, businesses either closed for the season or closed and for sale. The numbers are just a rough idea of what it is actually like around here if you really look.
Ely (within city limits) pop: 3400 Homes for sale: 62 Homes vacant: 19 Businesses: (located on both Sheridan and Chapman Streets) Closed for the season: 23 Closed or for sale or lease: 19
Tower/Soudan (within city limits) pop: approx. 700 Homes for sale: 16 Homes vacant: 17 Businesses: (Main Street Tower) Businesses vacant: 7 Businesses for sale: 3 Plus 4 new vacant lots on Main Street due to recent demolition.
Babbitt ( within city limits) pop. 1500 Homes for sale: 30 Homes: vacant 10 Businesses for sale: 1 Businesses empty: 1
Now remember these are just rough numbers observed as we drove around each of these communities so there is a plus or minus error involved. Even at that they show a starkly different picture of how things actually are if you really look.
EYE ON MINING
Rep. Nolan supports both mining exploration and a clean wilderness
Some Minnesota residents support copper mining near BWCAW
Mining Minnesota Statement regarding Friends of the Boundary Waters study: Regional Economic Impacts of Boundary Waters Wilderness Visitors
Goodnight lakes, Goodnight mines, We’ll take care of both
Rapala Corporation Facebook Response
Save the Boundary Waters & Destroy your Community: Response by Nancy McReady to November 27 article in the Star Tribune
That’s what Becky Rom has been doing. It’s a David and Goliath scenario, when behind Rom are 35 national environmental groups and an e-mail list of 17 million potential supporters. What is really disappointing is that after more than forty years of air and water pollution regulations, Rom and so-called environmental groups will not acknowledge that mining has changed and it can be done with care for the environment. It would be nice to diversify our economy, but attracting industries to Ely is pretty hard when we don’t have a decent road system or railroad running out of town for shipping of products.Ever since Rom retired from her Minneapolis attorney job she has been on a mission to destroy the economy of Ely and the surrounding area of the Boundary Waters. Those of us who chose to live in Ely rather than to leave after graduating from high school have lived through the ups and downs of the radical environmental push of more restrictions on the Boundary Waters. Now Rom’s mission is to restrict economic activity outside of the Boundary Waters as well. Rom left Ely in 1967 when it was a thriving logging, mining and tourist town. When graduating classes were well over 100 strong, when local businesses were doing well and most storefronts were occupied. Where her father ran a thriving canoe outfitting business and sold it in the mid 1970s before more restrictions pushed by environmental groups were placed on the Boundary Waters that lead to the demise of numerous resorts and outfitters.
Growing up in Ely in the sixties saw a multitude of vacationers coming into Ely with their boats and motors from Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and other states. They were all coming to fish the great lakes of the Boundary Waters. The sixties also saw the influx of Boy Scouts and church groups coming to town with their canoes. Ely’s resort and outfitters were all doing well. Can’t say that anymore. There are a fraction of the number of resorts and outfitters in the area. Environmental activists and the Democrat party have marginalized a whole sector of hard-working people. The ones who take showers AFTER work, not before. The good paying jobs of skilled workers have been ignored. They are the ones who make things! The ones who dig in the dirt to get the minerals needed to make things! The ones who go through the forest to harvest trees to assure there will be trees for future generations! The ones who build and keep all the heavy equipment used in these jobs running! Rom and her like, pour over rules and regulations to make them stricter, with the end game to deny other people from making a living in the area they love and live.
Over fifty years ago, copper/nickel companies were exploring northeastern Minnesota for minerals; and they found the Duluth Complex rich in precious minerals. This deposit is adjacent to the Iron Range deposits of iron ore and taconite. Rom says, “She longs to create a community that thrives on preserving the natural wonder around it, rather than exploiting it.” Yet Dave and Amy Freeman exploited the Boundary Waters with their year in the Boundary Waters opposing the mining industry that built the communities surrounding the Boundary Waters. Where was Rom in 2004 when community discussions were being held about copper/nickel? Rom gets involved at the end of the process when PolyMet is just about to get its permitting. This is very typical of radical environmental groups. They don’t sit at the table through the entire process to assure the mining is done right. They want to stop it!
Ely and the surrounding area depend on mining jobs to survive. They are plagued with empty storefronts and numerous houses and businesses for sale. There is barely the population to support the local businesses. A few hang in there, but it is tough when our population is two thirds of what it once was, and of that two thirds, over a third are retired and elderly people. According to the 2010 census, Ely population was 3460. The median age in Ely was 45.3 years. Only 16% were under the age of 18; 13.4% were between the ages of 18 and 24; 20.3% were from 25 to 44; 27.4% were from 45 to 64; and 22.9% were 65 years of age or older. The idea that tourism is going to sustain Ely is ridiculous! Once again the false claim of 250,000 visitors to the Boundary Waters is cited in the Star Tribune article, when the numbers are less than half that.
There has been an effort to restore Ely’s downtown with facelifts to many main street empty buildings, but they remain empty. Why hasn’t Rom invested in bringing the State Theater to life for locals so they can once again ask the question, “Wanna go show?” Where are the entrepreneurs, with their boat-loads of money, rushing into Ely to get business humming on the main drag? Rom talks about her father’s Navy pilot background that gave birth to his Canoe Country Outfitters business. That’s right! Many pilots from World War II had the same desire to start their fly-in wilderness businesses. They wanted to share the fishing and canoe wilderness with others from all across the U.S. But many of these resorts and outfitters were forced out of business in the 1950s and 1960s with the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act and other legislation. Meanwhile, Rom’s father’s business continued until the next environmental push of the mid 1970s and the passage of the 1978 BWCA Wilderness Act. Rom’s father may have had health concerns, but he also knew further restrictions of the ’78 law were going to affect many more resorts and outfitters businesses in Ely and surrounding area. Rom was a law clerk for Judge Miles Lord. His ruling against Reserve Mining Company led to Reserve’s stopping of dumping taconite tailings in Lake Superior and its eventual bankruptcy. Reserve invested hundreds of millions of dollars on Mile Post Seven and building new water treatment plants up and down the shores of Lake Superior, all the way to Duluth.
And what do we have forty years later? Black Beach near Silver Bay! Hailed the most beautiful beach on Lake Superior because of the millions of tons of taconite tailings washing up on shore! How about that! Over the years, our communities have healed and moved on, but not Rom. She is bound and determined to destroy Ely. Just look at the track record of these radical environmental groups. They have done more to destroy Ely’s tourism economy than anything else. Airplane ban, logging ban, condemned resorts, snowmobile ban, lawsuits against the truck portages, against the Chain of Lakes, towboats, and more. Ely was a lot more peaceful before Rom’s retirement. From CWCS Winter Newsletter 2016
Sustainability: by Jay Mackie
When I was asked to say a few words this evening I thought about a number of various pertinent subjects. However, I kept returning to the theme which appears to be a major bone of contention in the discussions relating to expansion of Minnesota’s mining industry. That theme, I believe, revolves around the word ‘sustainability’ and more specifically, how it relates to Ely and the surrounding area. Here are my comments.
My understanding of the meaning of sustainability- which is based on my education and experience - is the ability to maintain a certain desired state for an extended period of time without requiring outside intervention, help, aid or support. For northeast Minnesota and more specifically Ely- to me that means providing broad based economic opportunities, both today and tomorrow, which will allow a widely varied population group the ability to support itself – their families, the schools, and to maintain a desired level of services provided by city and county governments. Today, in our area which also includes the communities of Hoyt Lakes, Tower, Soudan, Babbitt, Aurora, and Biwabik – we are not able to provide those required economic opportunities.
You may ask – how can I support that statement? In order to hopefully understand my premise, I am going to give everyone here just a little short history lesson of what I have seen and experienced during my 70+ years in Ely. This experience contributes to my understanding of sustainability.
First off, let us start in the early 1940’s- The economy was based on two primary foundations and they were strong – mining and logging with mining the predominant foundation providing raw material for the US steel industry supporting the Allies winning efforts in WWII. At the time, logging was primarily supporting the underground mining activities providing lagging material and secondarily providing dimension lumber for the building industry. The tourism industry was quite limited at the time and consisted of a few area resorts such as Burntside Lodge. Primary transportation to this area was by railroad and secondarily by Greyhound Bus. Access was limited to say the least.
Next - After 1945 – With the mustering out of 100’s of thousands of soldiers across the US, the Economic foundation of NE Minnesota experienced a major improvement as did most of the US. Here jobs for the returning soldiers were to be had in one, a rapidly growing mining industry supporting the postwar expansion, and two, in the logging industry expanding to provide materials for the housing boom and thirdly, a new industry began to grow and flourish – tourism.
In the Ely area a number of new resorts were built. These resorts, the majority of which were built on Canadian/US border waters, catered primarily to fisherman. Access was provided by float plane and by motor launch. At this time the canoe outfitting business was in its infancy. Ely and NE Minnesota was a booming place. Anyone who wanted a job could get one. The cities of the Arrowhead had their financial coffers filled with tax money from the mining companies and as a result real estate taxes were virtually nonexistent. St. Louis County and the independent school districts were also without financial wants and similar to the cities – the real estate mill levy was very small.
Now come the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s – The 50’s saw much of the same as experienced in the late 40’s but with growth being centered in the tourism sector – primarily in the canoe outfitting business. Wilderness Outfitters and Canoe Country Outfitters became models of thriving summer businesses and the resorts on Basswood, Crooked Lake, Fall Lake, and Moose Lake were booked with fisherman solidly from the opening of fishing season until mid-September.
The mining industry was still the mainstay of our economic foundation providing year round living wages to all employees. During the late 50’s in the East Range we saw the expansion of the mining industry with the advent of the taconite mines at Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes – Reserve Mining Company and Erie Mining Company. Completely new communities were established to support the massive influx of people required by this industry. The timber industry, in like fashion, was flourishing providing material to the mills in Cloquet, Grand Rapids, International Falls, and to mills in Wisconsin.
The economy of NE Minnesota was supported by 3 strong and independent industries which in turn supported each other. City and school districts had no financial wants which in turn benefited all with extensive opportunities not available in other areas of Minnesota. Real estate taxes, commercial, residential and seasonal, were not a burden. The ability to have a home in town and a cabin by a lake was prevalent. Supporting infrastructure requirements and their upgrades were not major issues as they are today while government provided services were extraordinary. We were experiencing the ability to be sustainable.
However, in the late 60’s and culminating in the 70’s, dark clouds began to be seen on the economic horizon. The enactment of the air ban and wilderness act which led to restricted access to and ownership of the resorts on the border waters, culminated in 1965 and all were gone. The canoe outfitting business was flourishing but did not include the multitude of high paying customers that had previously supported the resorts. The customer base was a completely new group. The underground mines in the area ceased operating and the industry was now supported totally by the taconite operations which were still expanding, primarily in the west range area as far west as Keewatin. The timber industry took a great kick in the pants with the Federal Government removing huge tracts of land from timber harvesting. Our sustainability, the ability to continue and grow the vision of our fathers and grandfathers, most of whom were immigrants, began to falter.
So, with the end of the 1970’s the economic foundation of NE Minnesota and of Ely began to feel some major pinching. The mining industry was still operating at a relatively high rate though employment levels began to drop due to increases in productivity, the timber industry was imploding – no wood to cut, no resorts were left in the area now referred to as the BWCAW. The outfitting business though, continued to expand with the addition of new entrepreneurs. However, at best it was and still is today, a 4 month per year seasonal industry.
The question which next needs to be asked is – What happened as a result of these negative influences? What happened to the level of sustainability experienced since 1945?
First, was the requirement of the county, cities and school districts to raise the levels of Real Estate taxation in order to meet the service needs which the constituents were used to. This was met by much consternation and in many cases, the level of taxation forced many folks to sell – especially cabins. Taxes had become confiscatory for some residents.
Secondly, came the requirement for additional government provided services which heretofore had been only minor considerations.
Thirdly, there were few economic opportunities available for the young people who had grown up here and had been educated here to stay and raise families. Demographics of all NE Minnesota began to change. We began to see ourselves becoming a community of old people. In 1985 the average age in Ely was above 60.
The 1980’s saw another economic blow to the East Range – the largest employer in the Ely area, Reserve Mining Company, ceased operations principally due to a harsh US economic recession which resulted in the bankruptcy of LTV Steel Corp – half owner of Reserve. At that time Reserve in its two facilities at Babbitt and Silver Bay employed nearly 3,000 full time employees. The loss of wages to individuals and taxes to governments was devastating. The recession also saw a further reduction in the wood products industry and the tourism industry also felt its impact. What was the impact to Ely? As you can imagine it was not good – real estate taxes were pushed to the maximum mill levy allowed by law, demographics began to shift more rapidly as major reductions were seen of those folks in the wage earner class as there were fewer and fewer year round living wage jobs to be had. Now many government-provided services were being curtailed, cut, or charged for – electives and sports opportunities in our school were drastically reduced and fees for participation were instituted. This was the real ‘belt tightening’ time, a time to be frightened by what was happening to our community. One result of this recession, which most people do not know, is that our hospital was a hair breath away from declaring bankruptcy. When I was on the hospital board in 1985 the ongoing occupancy was less than 1 patient per day.
The 1990’s and into the new century we saw some respite from the ugly economics of the 1980’s. The recession was tamed and with it came a resurgence of folks with disposable income for vacations. The tourist business, with primary focus on outfitting, saw a resurgence of customers though many were the same ones that supported the industry in its infancy – and – they were getting older and the request for total outfitting packages was dramatically reduced. Through the years for holidays like Christmas and for birthdays, gifts came to these folks in the form of packsacks, cook kits, sleeping bags, air mattresses, axes, saws, etc. The income to the outfitters began to decline and without seeing new young customers to replace the aging fleet, the outlook for the future had become clouded. The increase in restrictive governmental regulations had also negatively affected the vacation choices of those contemplating a visit to NE Minnesota. However, there was a bright spot in the area economy and that was the rebirth of Reserve Mining in what is today Cliffs Northshore Mining Company. Though the employment levels are considerably less than in the heyday of Reserve, approximately half of the Babbitt employees are Ely or surrounding area residents. Wages and benefits are excellent with an average yearly wage package in excess of $70,000. The Vermilion Community College is another bright spot experiencing a stable enrollment. The sad note is that the wood product industry is now a mere image of its former self and is getting smaller day by day.
So, here we are in 2014. Where are we at today? The first question which we need to answer is: what is the status of our community we wish to sustain? And secondly, how are we going to sustain it, what is sustainable about an economic model with only two quite different legs to support it? We now have been reduced to the basic demographics of a retirement community without the numbers to support it. The population of Ely is now about 3450 vs 6,000+ in its heyday. Year-round living wages are provided by the mining industry which is primarily Cliffs Northshore Mining, the Ely Bloomenson Community Hospital, Independent School District 696, Vermilion Community College and a few local businesses. Meaningful static economic sustainability, discounting any growth, is in serious doubt without the addition of new businesses such as PolyMet, Twin Metals, Duluth Metals and Tech America. Wishes or rose-colored glasses do not provide the hard dollars necessary for sustainability.
Our local governmental units – city and school – have become panhandlers. They are much like a business that cannot make back its cost of sustaining capital much less provide any growth to its shareholders. Eventually, like it or not, they will economically implode – better known as bankruptcy.
If we were to measure the present well-being status or rather the ability to thrive, for Ely today, it is my opinion this is what we need to address:
A recent independent study of the five best states in the U.S. to live placed Minnesota as one of the five. In 2012, the mean household income for Minnesotans was $58,906. In a recent plea letter for assistance from the Ely Area Food Shelf, it stated that the median household income here is less than $35,000. This means that for Ely we are $24,000 or nearly 41% less than the state average. IS THIS WHAT WE WANT TO SUSTAIN?
In the same food shelf letter it went on to explain that 17.4% (approximately 600) of Ely’s population live below the poverty level compared to 11% for the remainder of Minnesota. The average yearly income for this group is less than $23,050. According to the Food Shelf letter this segment of our population is growing as measured by increasing demands for assistance which in 2012 was 10,000 pounds of food distributed per month. With this level of income for such a large segment of our population, how can they afford to pay the taxes necessary to keep up city services or to support the schools? With this level of income, the ability to thrive as families is in serious jeopardy. IS THIS WHAT WE WANT TO SUSTAIN?
Our business community is also in dire straits as indicated by the vacant lots and closed businesses. Some for the winter season which averages 7 months, and some for good. On Sheridan Street from 1st Avenue West to 6th Avenue East – seven blocks – there are 30 businesses which today are shuttered. In the two blocks on Chapman Street from Central Avenue to 2nd Avenue East there are 8 businesses which today are shuttered. IS THIS WHAT WE WANT TO SUSTAIN?
Unemployment levels, another meaningful measurement of well being or the ability to thrive, as reported in 2009 are as follows: Minnesota – 6% St Louis County – 8% Ely – 8% Hoyt Lakes – 16% Hibbing – 9% Virginia – 11%
IS THIS WHAT WE WANT TO SUSTAIN?
I hope that we all answered an emphatic no to the previous 4 questions. If no was your answer, it is my belief that we all need to work together and to work diligently to support new businesses such as PolyMet, and to insure that the requirements for operation of such businesses meet the strict environmental criteria which has been established by our regulatory agencies. In my long association – 50+ years – with the mining and minerals industry both here in the US and Internationally, I am convinced that the PolyMet project and others like it can be done safely and in an environmentally responsible manner. The rules and regulations which these businesses are required to abide by insures that. These are the businesses which will enable us, our children, and grandchildren the opportunity to be economically sound and sustainable today, tomorrow and well into the future. The viability of Ely and of NE Minnesota will be insured and the environment which we know and enjoy today will continue to exist. Without these businesses and others like them, I am afraid and convinced we will continue to experience overall economic decline accompanied by a population decline and eventually see the demise of our hospital and with it, the demise of our community. I BELIEVE AND I HOPE YOU BELIEVE THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE!!!