Gov. Mark Dayton has the opportunity to put some money behind his apparent belief that Ely’s future lies in a quality of life economy, rather than copper-nickel mining.
The governor’s recent decision regarding the future of the Twin Metals project upset many local elected officials, although views among the residents of the area are significantly more mixed. Indeed, more than a few saw the governor’s decision as an opportunity to continue the progress Ely has made in recent years to chart a sustainable economic future, relying on the incredible draw of the North Country lifestyle. This vision goes way beyond what we normally think of as “tourism,” although attracting visitors is part of the overall picture. More important, however, is the community’s ability to attract ambitious and entrepreneurial new residents, the kind of people who create their own opportunities and jobs for themselves.
Many in Ely have already done so, and the community has reaped the rewards. While some in the community persist in touting a negative “woe is me” message about the economic conditions in Ely, there isn’t a community in the region that doesn’t long to have the economic vibrancy and diversity that folks in Ely sometimes take for granted.
Hopes for Ely’s continued progress took an unfortunate detour, however, with the recent announcement that the Lake Connections broadband project is out of money, and won’t be able to extend its high-speed Internet service to homes and businesses in the community as originally planned. The fiber optic line comes to the city limits, but that’s where it ends, and it will take additional money, estimated at about $4 million, to actually connect those who want this valuable service.
High-speed Internet access is a critical element in completing Ely’s transition from a former mining town to a diverse and growing community that will continue to attract new residents, businesses, and jobs, for years to come. A community that can offer the North Country lifestyle to a new generation of professionals, such as writers, software designers, architects, or any of dozens of other information-based fields, and ready access to high-speed communications, is a community that is poised for long-term success. Retailers and local manufacturers need broadband access as well, to market their wares, and that’s another area where Ely’s economy can thrive. For many, “Made in Ely” is a brand onto itself and it has already helped a surprising array of small-scale manufacturers succeed, providing many dozens of good-paying jobs in the community. But there’s even more potential, and broadband can help businesses in Ely better tap into it.
We hear the constant refrain in this part of the state about the need for economic diversity— and on that front, Ely is leading the way in this region. But broadband clearly must be part of the community’s overall economic strategy and that’s where the governor can make a difference. The governor and the Legislature have made rural broadband expansion a priority, which is smart. Earmarking some of those dollars to finish the broadband expansion in Ely would be smarter yet. Given the tools, Ely is poised for success.