Ely has profited and at times thrived from its natural resource blessings of minerals, forests and beautiful waterways.
Mining, logging and tourism are ingrained into the heritage and historical economy of the city of about 3,500 and a surrounding population of another 2,000.
But those industries haven’t always played nice together; they are often in conflict.
Supporters of the proposed Twin Metals copper/nickel underground mine say Ely’s economy is fragile and the good paying jobs Twin Metals would generate are sorely needed.
However, opponents say mining of copper and nickel would be a cataclysmic threat to the fragile treasure that is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) watershed.
The divide is wide.
But Ely Mayor Chuck Novak strongly believes the two revenue drivers can not only co-exist, both are vital to the city’s economic present and future.
“It’s not an either-or issue. We can do both … mine safely and protect tourism,” he said. “And the city not only needs, but can have, both.”
Those against the Twin Metals proposal are absolutists in their opposition to copper/nickel mining near the BWCAW. They say Ely’s future is dependent on tourism and related small businesses, not mining, which is history not the future.
Steve Piragis, owner of Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely, said the minerals are needed, but they should not be mined in the BWCAW watershed, which he says is the most popular wilderness area in the world.
“I’m not against mining, but am opposed to one type of mining in one specific location: namely sulfide-ore copper mining in the watershed of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness,” Piragis said.
He also discounted arguments of those supporting the Twin Metals venture who say if the copper and nickel are mined elsewhere it will be in areas without the strict environmental standards in Minnesota and the U.S. and in countries where child labor is used.
“That’s ludicrous,” he said. “Do people really think that if we mine here, a mine in the Congo will be shut down? Come on.”
Piragis said he does not appreciate the acronym NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) that has been used by some mining supporters to describe opponents.
“(I) Don’t like that expression. It’s not in our watershed,” he said.
Twin Metals officials say mining will be done in an “environmentally responsible” way.
“I’m from Ely. I live here. I would never want the environment damaged. We will do this meeting or exceeding all environmental standards,” Dean Debeltz, Twin Metals director of operations and safety at the company’s Ely office, said.
Debeltz said Chile-based Antofagasta is fully committed to the $1.2 billion project the company says would create 650 permanent good paying jobs and hundreds more in spin-off business. The mine would be located nine miles southeast of Ely and about 11 miles northeast of Babbitt. The company has already pumped $400 million into the venture, and exploratory work continues.
A mine plan is expected to be presented to the proper federal and state agencies later this year, Debeltz said. The permitting process would then begin, yet any copper/nickel production is years away.
Ely’s tourism economy
A good portion of Ely’s business life takes a snooze in the winter — much like the hibernating bears that populate the surrounding woods.
Hours are cut back at certain restaurants and other businesses, with others closing completely. Less beer flows and fewer drinks are poured in the taverns and foot and vehicle traffic on touristy-idyllic Sheridan Street slows considerably compared to the torrent of spring/summer/fall visitors.
Ely does have a winter sports scene of mushing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, fat tire biking and snowshoeing.
But it’s summer that is the real attraction for the town “at the end of the road.” That’s when the city’s population expands with people drawn by the lakes and resorts and the waters of the BWCAW.
Outfitters do their thing preparing and packing for canoeists who want to experience a taste of the wilderness. Restaurants add on summer help and more hours. Northern-themed items and apparel move off the shelves of shops.
Yet, even in the summer, there are some troubling economic signs for Ely.
“Still way too many vacant storefronts,” said Novak, who adds that he senses tourism is down. But accurate measurements of tourism are difficult to come by.
Ely Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Eva Sebasta says lodging tax receipts were 2.5 percent higher in 2018 compared to 2017, with December numbers still outstanding. But, ironically, Twin Metals adds to that figure.
“We’re doing a lot of preporation work,” said Debeltz. “We’re keeping the motels filled in the winter.”
There is an ebb and flow to small tourist-based businesses in Ely.
Two new businesses — Ely Bike and Kicksled and Lobo Gun Leather — opened in the summer of 2018. And the former Smitty’s on Snowbank Lake outside of Ely changed ownership last August and is now Snowbank Lodge.
But Gringos 2 restaurant that served up Tex-Mex food closed its doors in August. And the Chocolate Moose, which served as a restaurant anchor since the 1980s at the southern entry onto Sheridan Street, shut down last summer and is unlikely to reopen this year.
Its closing is a significant and very visible blow to Ely’s economy.
Visitors would sit outside, eat and enjoy beverages at tables in the summer and fall while watching the world go by. Trucks, cars and motorcycles would drive by adding to the Norman Rockwell-like Americana setting.
It was pulsating; it was iconic.
“It’s a real loss. We hope new owners will be found and reopen the restaurant … and soon,” Novak said.
Piragis, whose store abuts the Chocolate Moose and owns and leases out the eatery’s kitchen, said he did not lose business last summer because the restaurant was not open.
“We have 30 full-time equivalents working for us. From a business standpoint we are doing fine. And Ely is on a sustainable road right now,” said Piragis, who is in his 40th year of business.
Sebasta said the infusion of new and young business owners into Ely is good sign for the city’s future.
“People want to come to Ely to visit and also to operate businesses,” she said.
Tanner Ott, 27, and his parents, John and Vicki of Missouri, have been visiting Ely since Tanner was a baby, They also have a summer place on Lake Ojibwe.
Tanner now lives in the Ely area and is overseeing an ambitious five-year State Theater renovation project on Sheridan Street with a final price tag that could reach $2 million. It will include a two-screen theater, an eatery and bar area, and apartments and office spaces on the second floor.
“Ely has a special meaning to us,” Ott said.
The Ely region is also special to Adam Jensen and his wife Jeni. They relocated from the Chicago area to purchase the former Smitty’s on Snowbank Lake and have renamed it Snowbank Lodge.
“I was canoeing around here when I was 14 and said then that I wanted to live up here,” Adam Jensen said.
He and his wife are now doing just that after taking over a resort that was well-run and left them a very customer-satisfied manifest.
Novak said he was asked during a campaign in 2016 if “Ely was dying?”
“No,” I shot back. “That’s hogwash. Not going to let that happen. Not then, not now,” he said.
But Novak, who is now serving his fourth two-year mayoral term, said it will take copper/nickel mining to stimulate the economy and grow permanent jobs and replenish school enrollment, along with more infrastructure to enhance year-round tourism.
So he is out front and fighting hard for the Twin Metals project both in the halls of Congress in Washington and at the state capitol in St. Paul.
And he also has his fingerprints on what will be a major state bonding request to help fund an Ely Trailhead, which would provide access to the Taconite Trail, Mesabi Trail and Prospectors Loop.
The three trails offer a variety of recreation uses, including cycling, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, fat tire biking, snowshoeing, hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and ATVing.
In addition, the project eyes a 32-unit market rate housing initiative.
“It would be a big plus for Ely,” Novak said.
Ely has a lot of hopeful initiatives in the works. And they are playing out, despite a division that will not abate anytime soon, if ever.
The town continues as ground zero in the seemingly forever battle between environment and economy in northern Minnesota.
Is there any improvement in the acrimony?
“Not really. Not much change,” the mayor said.
Steve Piragis agreed.
“That’s just the way it is, man. We’re not giving up … nor are they. It will go on and on. Who knows how it will end up. I just hope we win.”
Business North contributor Bill Hanna, who has been a writer and editor in the newspaper business for more than 40 years, was a reporter and executive editor at the Mesabi Daily News on the Iron Range from 1985 to 2016. He has won more than 50 state and national awards.