The recent study on the economic impact of overnight canoe users in the Boundary Waters largely missed the real value of tourism to our region’s economy— and, unfortunately, did little to advance a broader understanding of the benefits of wilderness protection.
The study, paid for by the Friends of the Boundary Waters and the Quetico-Superior Foundation, relied on a dubious assumption about tourism— namely that its economic value is determined by how many nickels you can shake from the pockets of the tourists on the weekends.
Such a view misunderstands how a community can use its tourist-based assets to build a vibrant and sustainable economy.
More than once in the past year or two, we’ve reported on the “get-to-know-you” sessions held regularly by Ely’s Tuesday Group, to introduce new residents of the area. It’s always an eclectic group, often featuring middle-aged professionals sporting a wide range of skills, who have decided to ditch life in the big city to pursue the challenges of the North Country lifestyle.
In almost every single instance, their story begins the same: “I first came to Ely on a trip to the Boundary Waters…”
For hundreds of residents in Ely, and for thousands around the area, it’s a similar story. And in this context, who really cares how many dollars they dropped on freeze-dried meals, ice cream, or a motel room, before heading out on the wilderness trek that changed their lives?
The Boundary Waters introduced them to a region and a way of life— and for many, it was love at first sight. These are folks who return again and again, eventually buy some property, invest in a business, build a home or summer cabin, and set down roots as a contributing member of the community.
Our region has a thriving home construction industry that exists almost exclusively on investments by people who, in many cases, first came here on a trip to the wilderness. None of those jobs or economic investments were considered by the recent study. Real estate is another sizable and successful industry in our area, fueled by the spinoff from tourism. It’s the same with banking and finance, insurance, legal and other professional services, and just about every retail business in the area, be it on the Main Street of Tower or Sheridan Street in Ely.
Some have used the study to dismiss the value of tourism, by suggesting that the taconite industry provides far more economic impact. And that’s certainly true for communities on the Mesabi Range, which remain dominated by mining and prone to the dislocating challenges of its booms and busts.
But here, in the communities of the old Vermilion Range, it’s a different story. And it’s not a slap at the taconite industry to state the obvious: tourism (in the broad context that it deserves) is the lifeblood of communities like Ely and Tower. The booms and busts on the Mesabi Iron Range provide little more than a ripple to the economic activity north of the divide. These were mining towns half a century ago. They aren’t any more. Folks here are building a different future, based on key assets like the Boundary Waters and the surrounding beauty of the Superior National Forest and the appealing lifestyle the North Country offers for so many.
The recent study, while intended to help make that case, largely missed the boat. The value of tourism goes far beyond grabbing nickels on the weekend. It’s the welcome mat that invites folks to get comfortable and settle down for the long haul. That’s how you build your community for the future.