While sulfide mining proponents find it strategic to contend that Ely is dying, the numbers tell a different story. Small business is alive and growing in Ely.
• The Ely Chamber of Commerce has nearly 300 business and organization members. In contrast, the Laurentian Chamber of Commerce which covers Eveleth, Gilbert, Mt. Iron and Virginia (with a combined population nearly five times that of Ely) lists only 266 members.
• Ely hosts over two dozen events and community activities each year, including the Blueberry Arts Festival which, with its 40,000 visitors, ranks among the largest out-state community events in Minnesota. The success of the recent marathon organized by Stone Soup Events confirms Ely’s potential for more events.
• The Ely downtown area has about 100 retail and service businesses, including nearly a dozen restaurants and eateries. Few other towns of 3,500 people have anywhere near that many downtown businesses. Two Harbors with its 3,700 people and benefitting from North Shore traffic estimated at over a million tourists annually has far fewer downtown businesses.
• The Ely service area includes nearly 50 resorts, camps, outfitters and guide services. That’s a reflection of Ely’s unique distinction that nearly 2,000 lakes lie within 50 miles of the town. Half of these are in the BWCAW where they are enjoyed by nearly a quarter million wilderness adventurers each year. The other half are multiple-use lakes within Superior National Forest that are enjoyed by another quarter million Ely-area vacationers each year. Ely’s location in the center of this recreational mecca is its greatest amenity.
• Most tellingly, Ely is benefitting from a recent downtown revitalization surge the Minneapolis Star Tribune heralded in October 2014 as a “renaissance.” Consider these numbers: A few years ago, MLS real estate listings included nearly two dozen vacant Ely storefronts in the central Sheridan/Chapman Street downtown area. Current MLS listings include only five such listings of vacant downtown storefronts. Business operations or redevelopment efforts are underway in all the rest that had been for sale.
Among Ely’s downtown rejuvenation highlights:
• Four new or expanded “small-batch/high-quality” manufacturing businesses in or near downtown: Steger Mukluks, Wintergreen Northern Wear, Kondos Outdoors, and Brain Storm Bakery/Crapola!
• Redevelopment of Ely’s historic State Theater as a two-screen entertainment complex slated for grand opening in October 2016 and newly listed on the national historic registry.
• Restoration of Ely’s historic “castle,” the turreted century-old Tanner Hospital building which is also on the national historic registry and is being returned to its century-old glory for mixed retail/lodging use.
• The opening of two new restaurants, Insula and Gators, and a third new one slated to open next spring.
• The opening of the non-profit Ely Folk School, a community education and event center which during its first season this past summer hosted over 60 classes in traditional crafts and skills for over 200 registrants.
This revitalization surge has caught the attention of the Minnesota Design Team, architects and planners who assist small communities with integrated approaches to growth and development. Last fall, the team engaged a community-wide forum hosted by Incredible Ely that envisioned a number of creative design elements to enhance Ely’s downtown area. These included “pocket parks,” a greenhouse winter garden, and downtown foot/bike/ski trails to link up with the adjoining woodland trails. The proposals were so well received that the Minnesota Design Team has a return visit planned for next April to usher these facelift efforts along. That nicely coincides with plans for all the new fiber optics cable laid in and around Ely to be operational next spring – another big boost for area businesses.
This resurgence has made Ely the envy of communities throughout the North Country. And if the business upsurge doesn’t sufficiently underscore Ely’s vitality, a recent Ely Timberjay headline certainly does. On September 17, its front page trumpeted: “Ely School Enrollment Jumps Sharply.” What community wouldn’t be immensely proud to share that kind of news!