It’s my firm belief that in small towns, attitude is everything. A community that feels optimistic and positive about its future, is a community that will invest in itself and will, as a result, generally succeed. By contrast, when civic leaders focus mainly on the negative, it’s an attitude that can permeate a small town, and discourage new investment in homes and businesses. Who wants to invest in a dying community, after all?
That’s why I’ve been frustrated over the years by the persistence of negativity among far too many influential folks in Ely. Anyone who has ventured from the backwoods to partake in the political discussions in the community in the past few decades has certainly heard the litany of woe about the gasping economy at the end of the road.
As someone who lives 25 minutes from the end of the road, it’s always struck me as incongruous, given that Ely has long been viewed by most folks in the region as the most vibrant and economically-thriving small city around. And it’s not even a close contest. Compared to any other place in the region, Ely is the one with real mojo.
Still, there’s that persistent Eeyore complex that emanates constantly from city leaders or local media about how tough things are in town. When school enrollment dips, the “woe-is-us” crowd is almost gleeful. When a Pizza Hut closes, it’s heralded as the end of days for the town’s economy. When Standard and Poors recently assigned Ely a strong AA- long-term bond rating, it included a brief notation that it considered Ely’s economy to be “weak.” Now, the bond-rating agency would undoubtedly consider most small town economies, and certainly those here in northeastern Minnesota, to be weak, but it was greeted nonetheless as a kind of thrilling confirmation that the doom and gloom finally had some independent validation. The mayor touted it at a city council meeting. It was front-page news in at least one paper in town, generating an editorial as well. You could almost see the fist-pumping behind closed doors.
Now I certainly don’t think it’s the role of community leaders or newspaper editors to be relentlessly positive, or to gloss over real issues that affect our communities. Every small town has its challenges that need to be confronted in a constructive manner.
At the same time, however, what community leaders say does matter. When a television crew comes to town, as they frequently do in Ely, it would be nice if local leaders could tout all the great things happening when the microphone is placed in front of their faces, and leave the tale of woe to entertain the troops after hours. A little boosterism can go a long way in a small town.
Most of us, of course, understand that the context of all this centers around the great divide in Ely— copper-nickel mining. The “woe-is-us” folks believe a mine will bring back the good old days of a prosperous Ely, while the “things-are-looking-up” side believe it will only spoil the community’s transition to what I call a “quality-of-life” economy. The arguments about the state of Ely’s economic health tend to center around that underlying debate.
I’m not going to attempt to resolve that dispute here, except to say that any objective observer would take Ely’s main drag over Virginia’s any day of the week, and Virginia is surrounded by mines. Mining never brings anything but periodic bursts of prosperity followed by economically-destructive depressions. No one familiar with the history of the Range can deny that fundamental fact.
My main point, however, is that communities reap what they sow. And one of the best ways to ensure your town’s economy suffers is to keep on telling everyone how tough things are. It comes down to self-fulfilling prophecies. Talk is usually cheap, but it can sometimes be expensive, particularly when it’s deployed to relentlessly denigrate your community’s economy.
Fortunately, there are plenty of folks in Ely who understand this dynamic. It’s probably no coincidence that when a group of real, honest-to-goodness community boosters got together in Ely a few years ago, they selected “Incredible Ely” as the name of their organization. That’s powerful marketing just in a name. When our community development group got rolling in Tower recently, we joked we should call ourselves “Equally Incredible Tower.”
That’s what I find to be so bemusing about the Eeyore crowd in Ely. What they seem unwilling to recognize is that when it comes to economic vibrancy in our region, Ely is widely viewed as the gold standard by which every other community up here judges itself. And after so many years of it, all the moping at the end of the road just comes across as whining.
If the copper-nickel debate entrenches this same dynamic for the next 15-20 years, which is the soonest a mine would ever happen, it won’t be good news for Ely. Badmouth your town long enough and you pay a steep price.
Rather than dwelling on rusty memories of a long-ago golden age, that for far too many reasons to list here is never coming back (if it ever existed at all), everyone in Ely needs to focus on building a community that exudes optimism for the future, and builds on the many assets that do, in fact, make Ely pretty incredible. Let’s give the doom and gloom a rest.