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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Mining Minnesota study misfires on tourism


A new study produced by Mining Minnesota highlights the major impact of taconite mining on the region’s economy, and contrasts that to what it claims is a much-smaller impact from the tourism sector. The study, putting it mildly, has problems.

It’s pretty obvious that mining plays a big role in the region’s economy, although it is one that has declined significantly over the years in terms of total employment and its overall share of the region’s total payroll. As of 2015, according to the study, the taconite mining industry directly employs 3,363 workers, or barely a quarter of the 12,000 miners who worked in the region’s taconite industry in the late 1970s— and the region continues to produce about exactly the same amount of taconite as 40 years ago. That’s called hand-writing on the wall, and those who envision a resurgence of mining jobs in the region would do well to consider the history of automation and its impact on the region’s employment.

Granted the mining jobs that still exist pay well, averaging about $81,000 a year for a miner, according to the report. If that’s the point that Mining Minnesota wanted to make, they would have done well to make it and move on. Instead, the report was plainly produced as a counterweight to the concerns expressed by those in the tourism sector, who worry that the start-up of a copper-nickel industry in the heart of the Superior National Forest, along the southern edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, will significantly harm an industry that has built up to serve visitors to the region.

And that is where the study goes off the rails and begins to look much more like industry propaganda than a fair-minded analysis, deploying highly questionable assumptions in seeking to make a political point.

In comparing the impact of the mining sector to tourism, the report at least acknowledges that tourism employs more residents of the region, citing a total of 6,390 direct and indirect jobs compared to the 5,140 in the mining sector. Those tourism jobs, according to the report, come with an average wage just under $18,000 per year, or far less than jobs in the mining cluster. Doing the math, the report claims that the mining cluster generates $418 million in annual payroll, compared to just $116 million for tourism.

Looks like a powerful case, until you recognize how Mining Minnesota juggled the numbers and badly mischaracterized the broader impact of tourism. If you read carefully, the report acknowledges that it did not include one of the largest single tourism-related sectors— known as “food services and drinking establishments” in economists’ lingo— in their analysis. Every other study I’ve ever seen on tourism impact prominently includes this sector, without question.

Mining Minnesota’s says it left it out because economic development is only created by industries that bring “new money” into a region, whereas food service relies primarily on local business. That’s rubbish as any restaurant owner in our area could attest. Most just try to survive the winter months, waiting for the return of summer. It’s the same all across the North Shore and much of Duluth. The throngs of people who pour into Canal Park in Duluth each year and eat at the many restaurants there are overwhelmingly from outside the Duluth area.

But here’s the problem for Mining Minnesota. The food service sector is so large that including it would have significantly changed the story it was trying to tell. This sector alone employs 7,590 people in the region according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If two-thirds of those jobs are highly dependent on tourism dollars (and it would be even higher in our local area) it would nearly double the number of jobs attributable to tourism. What’s more, food service jobs pay better than other jobs that Mining Minnesota did include as “tourism,” so this would have altered the average wage in the sector and significantly increased the total payroll in the sector. Indeed, if you assume two-thirds of the restaurant and bar workers are primarily tourism dependent, you find that tourism employs more than twice as many residents of the region as mining. And if you take the average wage of about $23,000 a year for a restaurant worker, that adds $116 million in annual payroll to the sector. Mining still generates a bigger payroll, but the disparity is cut in half.

If you look further into the details, the report is riddled with other questionable assumptions that undermine the study’s credibility. While the report failed to include restaurant and bar workers under the tourism sector, they included a number of other very low-paying sectors that would appear to have little connection to tourism. Fitness centers, event promoters, racetracks, sports and recreation instruction, and spectator sports constitute about ten percent of the jobs the report attributes to tourism in our region. The one thing they all share in common is a very low reported wage. Whether they are predominantly related to tourism is questionable. How many tourists hit the gym when they arrive in Ely, for example? Adding these sectors under “tourism”, however, helps push down the average wage.

While some of this was likely intentional, other aspects of the study reflect that Mining Minnesota has a limited understanding of the makeup of the tourism sector. Their listing of sector jobs fails to include a long list of occupations that, in communities in our area, are heavily dependent on tourism. The majority of Main Street businesses in the communities of our area would shut down without the annual influx of revenue from summer visitors and seasonal residents. Add all those jobs, ranging from insurance and financial, real estate, grocery sales, convenience stores, and even the media, and you get a truer picture of tourism’s impact, both in terms of wages as well as economic diversity.

In either case, it shouldn’t be an either-or proposition. Those who worry about the impact of copper-nickel mining are largely supportive of the taconite industry and recognize the value it brings to the region’s economy as a whole. While these two sectors are currently able to co-exist, that is possible largely due to the geographic separation between them. The tourism cluster in northeastern Minnesota is based in Duluth, the North Shore, and northern St. Louis and Lake counties, while mining is currently limited to the Mesabi Iron Range in central St. Louis County. If the Duluth Complex is developed for copper-nickel, that separation will disappear, at least in our area. Add to that the fact that sulfide-based copper-nickel mining is inherently a higher risk to the environment than taconite mining, and the concerns of those in the tourism sector become far more justified.

While Mining Minnesota took pains to publicly state their support for the tourism sector, their study’s comparative approach sends an altogether different, albeit subtler, message— that it’s okay to sacrifice tourism for mining because mining jobs pay better.

That’s exactly the wrong message for a region that is desperate for economic diversity and to attract a broader range of new residents. What it says to prospective residents and business owners is clear. Don’t bother to invest in our communities. In the end, only mining counts. That’s not the message that builds a sustainable future.

Mining Minnesota should stick to promoting the mining industry. Mischaracterizing tourism just doesn’t suit them.


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  • The report that this editorial brilliantly skewers is an example of the sulfide-ore mining industry's strategy for foisting its poison and destruction on the Arrowhead. By touting "studies" and "reports" that focus on the Iron Range and taconite mining, the industry seeks to confuse and mislead the public and policymakers. Mining Minnesota and Antofagasta want people to think that sulfide-ore copper mining is just an extension of the kind of mining that has previously occurred in Minnesota, and they want people to think that the mining would occur in the area where taconite mining occurs. By including seven counties and by talking about Duluth extensively in the Praxis report, Mining Minnesota seeks to create the false impression that sulfide-ore mining would provide a broad-based regional boost with no downside. As Marshall points out, the proposed Antofagasta/Twin Metals mine is on the edge of the Boundary Waters in the heart of the Superior National Forest. The threat to the regional economy is not the lack of more mining jobs. The threat to the regional economy is the proposed destruction of land and water in the heart of the landscape that is the real driver of the economy in the Arrowhead. As Marshall's fine writing shows, the industry will do and say anything to support a project that would send billions of dollars to Chile and waste the Boundary Waters watershed.

    Thursday, April 27, 2017 Report this

  • It’s easy to see the source of the TimberJay’s confusion on this report. The editorial focuses on the aggregate impact while the Mining Minnesota narrative has always been about efficiency ($80,000 vs. $$18,000 earnings per worker, jobs and jobs multiplier generated). Praxis worked hard in its report to give tourism jobs every benefit possible. Again, the study was about quality of jobs, not quantity. Ultimately, our direct and indirect earnings per worker and jobs multiplier for tourism were congruent with the recently completed study of tourism by the Friends of the Boundary Waters. The Praxis study removed some of the lowest paying jobs in the region (for example, food service) and added in about 125 higher-paying sporting good manufacturing jobs. The roughly 12,000 food service jobs averaged about $14,000 in wages or about $16,300 including benefits and other compensation. The aggregate job multiplier for these jobs is 1.16 – much lower than what is credited for tourism in our report. In other words, comparing on an apples-to- apples basis, adding in food services would have dragged the tourism numbers down, not boosted them as the Timberjay editorial suggests.

    The Timberjay editorial notes, “In either case, it shouldn’t be an either-or proposition.” On that key, broad point, we agree. We have never said that it’s okay to sacrifice tourism for mining because mining jobs are better. We maintain, and the study supports, that tourism jobs are not an equivalent economic substitute for mining or for perhaps any other primary sector industry.

    Am I a tourist when I spend my mining dollars eating and drinking at a restaurant in Ely or Duluth?

    Thursday, April 27, 2017 Report this

  • Antofagasta's Twin Metals project would destroy several thousand surface acres of the public's land near Ely and turn it into an industrial mining zone, close that land off to access for anyone except the mining company, pollute the water, and destroy the sustainable Wilderness-edge economy. Claiming that tourism can coexist with that kind of destruction is laughable. Why would we allow Mining Minnesota's client, billionaire Chilean company Antofagasta, to destroy the public's land and pollute the public's water to mine the public's minerals? To provide a few ever-decreasing mining jobs for people who move here from elsewhere? Bob Tammen states the irrefutable truth: Mining is great for a relatively few people who get higher-paying jobs, but it's horrible for communities.

    Thursday, April 27, 2017 Report this

  • MarshallHelmberger

    I submit that Mr. Ongaro and the folks at Praxis should have actually talked to a few Main Street businesses in places like Tower or Ely. Because they would have included my job under the tourism sector, and I make much more than $18,000 a year. They would have included the local insurance agent across the street, the well-paid grocery workers at Zup's, and virtually every real estate agent north of the Mesabi Range. Add to that the company down the street that restores wooden boats, the marina down the road that sells and services boats on Lake Vermilion. They all make more than $18,000 and they wouldn't be here if it weren't for the tourism that provides us the profits to sustain our businesses year-round. Without it, none of us would survive. Finally, how many building contractors did Praxis include in their study, Frank, because I didn't see any? Because local contractors are heavily dependent on seasonal lake residents for much of their work. There's another well-paid tourism-dependent sector employing hundreds of people in our area that was ignored by the study. I could go on and on. This was an ill-informed effort. Sorry, but it's true.

    Friday, April 28, 2017 Report this

  • snowshoe2

    What happens in the mining issue effects jobs statewide. Many people come to Minnesota because of the BWCA and what it stands for. Many people travel up the north shore vacationing with the idea of looping toward Ely on highway #1 and the pristine areas around it. With slag piles everywhere and potential acid pollution the whole state could lose tourism and jobs if the Twin Mine goes in.

    Saturday, April 29, 2017 Report this

  • From the Ely Echo:

    There were stories and photos to fill up the 17 pages in this year’s Ely Echo Progress Edition but there certainly weren’t as many as previous years. In fact, there’s just one more page than what we had the first four years, down 11 pages from a high of 28 pages when the business community was thriving.

    This year’s edition is a reflection of Ely’s economic downturn that continues despite the cheerleaders who refuse to see the reality of our current situation.

    We could’ve written a story about the number of businesses for sale. We could’ve written about the businesses that closed up shop, giving in to declining sales and a lack of customers.

    Geez, maybe they missed a couple of those start up businesses that we have been hearing about!

    Sunday, April 30, 2017 Report this