ELY – As some area political leaders continue to look to mining as the area’s economic driver that will lead Northeast Minnesota communities into the future, a group of residents and …
ELY – As some area political leaders continue to look to mining as the area’s economic driver that will lead Northeast Minnesota communities into the future, a group of residents and entrepreneurs in Ely is making a dedicated push in a different direction.
In what could be dubbed “A Progress Report for Ely,” the Minnesota Design Team, a group of professional planners, designers and architects from across the state, returned to Ely this past weekend and received a surprising report on the efforts of the Incredible Ely business development organization and other engaged residents looking to transition the city from the perception of a defunct mining town into a modern, vibrant community that celebrates the area’s recreational opportunities to attract a growing number of tourists and young forward-thinking entrepreneurs.
Many of the Design Team members who visited Ely in November 2014, spent their time here gauging the progress made in the community in the last 17 months or so. A reception was held Friday night and the seven MDT members stayed at Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge. They toured the city and held a workshop in the Council Chambers at City Hall on Saturday.
Ely Council member and Incredible Ely member Kara Polyner, who helped organize the team’s initial visit, moderated the session. The Ely City Council called a special meeting for the session. Mayor Chuck Novak made a brief opening statement, but did not stay to participate in the session. Except for Polyner, no other City Council members were present for their special meeting.
Despite the city’s contract with Ely-TV to record all official city meetings, the four-hour session was not recorded for playback on the city’s local access channel.
“Because of the current economic conditions here in Ely, it might take some time for your ideas to take root,” Novak said. “There are good ideas here. We will put them on the table and work our way through them. “I’m sure the council is looking forward to hearing about your (new) ideas at their next meeting.”
MDT leader Andrew Mack asserted that his team rarely makes a return visit to a community for a follow-up meeting. “Because of what is going on in this town and your incredible love for this community, we felt we needed to come back to see your progress.”
Mack is a city planner for the cities of Silver Bay and Bemidji. “Our brains are spinning with amazement and we are pleased to hear about all your progress,” he said.
He was joined in the Ely visit by Randy Thorson, outdoor recreation planner for the National Park Service, Paul Mogush, planner for the city of Minneapolis, Debra McClarren, sustainable tourism specialist, Scott O’Hearn, urban planner and designer based in the Twin Cities, Paul Mandel, MDT member since 1992, and Steve Gaultry, a landscape architect and MDT veteran.
Mandel said he was very pleased when he drove into Ely last Friday. “Just seeing all the dumpsters around town, I could not believe the progress and all the work going on here, “Mandel said.
Polyner provided an update of the community’s economic and beautification efforts in Ely, beginning with the Team Envision projects of Incredible Ely.
“The Chair-ish Ely fundraising activity is in its third year and continues to grow in popularity and visibility,” she said. The activity involves high school wood shop students constructing 20 Adirondack-style chairs, and this year several matching ottomans, which are then painted by area artists and sponsored and displayed by businesses during the summer. The chairs are auctioned off in August.
“We call it a fundraiser, but it is more than that,” Polyner said. “So many people are clamoring to be a part of it.” As much as $4,000 has been raised to help with the cost of Incredible Ely’s economic development efforts. MDT members suggested the group consider adding picnic tables.
Beautification efforts, that started within the Chamber of Commerce have been streamlined and expanded to include hanging flower baskets and banners displayed in the downtown district, as well as garland displayed during the Christmas season. “We would love for the displays to go all the way down Sheridan Street to the Chamber office,” she said.
Progress Post-It notes will soon be displayed in the windows of businesses around town to provide an update and description of renovation and growth efforts. Polyner said at least 18 businesses have joined the program so far this year to display the two-foot-square Post-Its. “They will describe the progress businesses have made for this year and the displays could be their own little walking tour of the economic growth efforts,” she said. “It is indeed nice to see all the dumpsters around town, as it shows all the progress.”
As previously reported in the Timberjay, Incredible Ely is proceeding with a plan to erect informational and way-finding kiosks in strategic locations around town, beginning this summer. Various health organizations are providing grants for the project.
Despite being ridiculed and scoffed at as unworkable and ridiculous, a zipline attraction across Miner’s Lake is still under discussion as a tourist attraction for Ely.
“That by itself could make Ely a destination,” Polyner said. “Some people laugh at it, but it is still a serious consideration. Our local police chief, who at first was skeptical like many, tried it on vacation in Jamaica, and even he said we need one here.”
Polyner suggested the zipline towers would be built to resemble old mine head frames. “We don’t want to lose our identity,” she said. “Outdoor enthusiasts love taking risks. It is different than the whole Boundary Waters experience.”
Other areas of progress highlighted by Polyner include the “Made in Ely” branding efforts, the expansion of the Historic Walking Tours, which will be expanded to 49 locations this summer, and the revised and expanded Ely Comprehensive Plan, which will give the city of Ely a road map for strategic growth ib the coming years.
A dedicated group of dog lovers continue to work on efforts to construct a dog park within the city. “There are an estimated 600 dogs in this city, not counting the sled dogs, and so many tourists bring their dogs on vacation with them up here and we could use a dedicated place for pets to run,” Polyner said.
She also described the new Small Business Conference, scheduled for April 27-28 at the Grand Ely Lodge, as another tool to “nurture the entrepreneurial spirit” in Ely.
The new Event Coordinator position in the city is also making progress to attract more tourists to Ely in the off-seasons by coordinating the Ely Marathon, which will be held again this fall, and the new Great American Canoe Festival, scheduled for June 10-12.
Tanner Ott gave a brief update on what his family is doing to renovate and develop vacant buildings around Ely as another tool in transforming Ely from a dying mining town to something much suited for this century, while celebrating the area’s unique history.
“We definitely see many great things happening in the future in Ely and are looking to help young business owners and support what they are trying to do,” Ott said.
He listed 10 projects around town that are in various stages of progress. “A lot of those dumpsters you see around town are in front of many of our projects.”
The Ott family had just initiated their support of Ely’s economic transition when the MDT first visited the city. Since then, two new businesses have opened, including the Ely Folk School and Insula restaurant. “We are lucky to have those two unique places in our town,” he said.
Coming this summer, at least three more new businesses will be opening, according to Ott, including a new Crapola factory and retail store, a new youth and family center, and another restaurant with a Mexican theme.
Declining to go into much detail, Ott revealed, “Look for a couple of more things happening in the next several months.” He did let the cat out of the bag in a way, by expounding on relentless rumors around town and indicated big changes are coming at the former State Theater and adjacent Salerno property (perhaps events during the Blueberry Arts Festival and during the theater’s 80th birthday this fall?), as well as plans for a youth hostel and day care center in the city.
Paul Schurke was instrumental in forming the Ely Folk School, which will soon be starting its second year of operation and recently celebrated its 100th class and 400th class registrant.
His wife, Sue Schurke, rebooted her Wintergreen Northern Wear clothing business last year and is joined by two other manufacturing businesses, Steger Mukluks and Kondos Outdoors, located in Ely. “There are now about 60 people here in Ely employed in the textile manufacturing business in this community,” Schurke said. “I have to guess, on a per capita basis, there is probably more people in that industry up here than anywhere else in Minnesota.”
to the future
After a working lunch, MDT members discussed the progress so far made by the Ely stakeholders in transitioning the community for the future and made a few suggestions to help in that effort.
In a play on the beautification efforts around town, MDT members suggested implementing a “Design-A-Dumpster” program to celebrate the progress being made to renovate and re-invent the city of Ely away from the single-minded approach to relying on mining as the only path forward for the future of the community.
“Whether you decorate them or not, put those big, yellow Post-It notes on the dumpsters with the business’s name and what (renovation) is being done,” Mack said.
The MDT team also pushed for the continuation of the downtown banner and flower basket beautification efforts. “We encourage the continuation of the holiday garland efforts and use of the “Incredible Ely” logo for large ornaments to create a sense of motion and action,” Mack said.
The team also suggested designing a fresh new logo to identify the city of Ely, “to modernize and incorporate” all these new ideas, he said. “To create greater community engagement, perhaps a design competition could be held,” he said.
Multiple levels of informational kiosks, all with the same, unified theme, could also be implemented to tie in with the main structures. “Perhaps special lighting, especially around the holidays, would be a way to draw attention to these structures,” he said.
The team also suggested a more user-friendly website for the city of Ely. “Make it easier to find your new Comprehensive Plan and include a strategic or action plan,” he said. “The city should continue their support of the Otts and other groups to revitalize the downtown area and you can do that with a program of various funding tools, such as Tax Increment Financing Districts, and grants and loans,” he said
Rather than having a dog park out by the softball fields, the MDT suggested locating closer to Miner’s Lake and the veterinary clinic. “The idea here is to help tie-in the trail there with the downtown area,” he said.
The team welcomed Gerry Snyder’s efforts to highlight the historic and geologically-significant Pillow Rock. “Whether it stays where it is or it is relocated, We encourage you to do something,” Mack said. “This is a unique feature and will draw more people here.”
They also suggested establishing more access points from the downtown area to the Trezona Trail around Miner’s Lake.
In looking at the planned development area on the west end of town, the team suggested the future trailhead complex for the Pioneer, Mesabi and Taconite Trails be located right on Highway 169 at the location of the Pattison Street extension, instead of at the intersection with the Fifth Avenue West extension on the west side of the hospital. The conceptual plan provides for eight or nine lots to be developed.
“Find expertise to provide a development plan for this area,” Mack said. “Don’t put a gas station there or more convenient stores. This is a beautiful entry into the community and it should be kept open and green. Keep additional commercial development in the commercial corridors and don’t just expand the commercial district further to the west,” he said.
“In everything that the city and Incredible Ely continues to do, you should be looking for ways to capture and focus the high quality of life that you are building in this community,” Mack said. “In all things incredible about Ely, focus on making Ely a beautiful and special place.”
The Minnesota Design Team members who made a return visit to Ely last weekend include, from to from left, Debra McClarren, Andrew Mack, Scott O’Hearn, back row from left, Randy Thorson, Paul Mogush, Paul Mandel, and Steve Gaultry. Photo by K. Vandervort