Mining town embraces tourists

Silver Bay’s North Shore Adventure Park, now in its third year, adds to the growing visitor attractions like the Black Beach Campground and upcoming minigolf course.

Poised on the north shore of Lake Superior, Silver Bay is redefining itself as a tourist destination. 

A mining town since its inception, the planned community was constructed by Reserve Mining Company in 1954 for workers in their taconite processing and shipping facilities.

Even the now-popular Black Beach is a byproduct of mining. Its striking dark color is a result of off-shore dumping of taconite tailings in the 1960s. The Black Beach still sits on mine property now owned by Cleveland-Cliffs. A longtime favorite under-the-radar location for locals, a deal to develop the beach for visitors to enjoy was brokered between the mine, the city, and the MnDNR in 2015 when the beach bounded beyond local attention and hit tourists’ radar.

In an effort to develop adjacent Black Beach property, the city procured state bonding dollars to develop a 49-site RV campground, which opened last year. 

Now the buzz around town is that Silver Bay is on the brink of becoming the new vacation destination on Minnesota’s north shore.

David Drown, a new resident of Silver Bay, is bringing decades of experience as a small-cities financial consultant to bear as the city’s new economic development director. He said the growing interest in outdoor activities and the unveiling of Black Beach has a great deal to do with the zeitgeist shift.

“Black Beach was used by locals, but nobody else knew it was down there. Now it’s open to the public, and the new campground is even more successful than expected,” he said.

The RV campground, which has bookings out into 2023, contributed to such intense tourism traffic pressure last summer that access for emergency vehicles would have been impossible if they were needed. Road updates are slated to begin in 2021.

An influx of tourists has made a dramatic impression on Silver Bay, and Drown is witnessing a sea-change in how tourism is viewed, along with an understanding that Silver Bay has an opportunity to define itself as something more than a mining town.

His ideas to repurpose the struggling business park to tourism-oriented businesses includes potentially moving a branch of the municipal liquor store there, along with an effort to fill what Drown called “the brewery gap.”

“It’s unlikely that good-paying industrial jobs are going to locate there, but it’s a beautiful location and it’s foolish not to embrace serving tourists in that space,” he said.

Housing is high on Drown’s priority list. It’s remarkable to see city leaders’ courage and willingness to change and address worker housing, he said, and to strengthen their property tax base.

“Every employer I’ve talked to says housing is tight, and if you go back ten years you can see a distinct lack of rental housing even then, and our property tax base is a weakness,” he said.

Pursuing housing development throughout the city, Drown said everything from resort-oriented housing on city-owned lakeshore property to tax forfeited land at the edge of town for an apartment complex is possible. 

A senior housing working group has been established. Zoning codes are being revised. Another tract of 40 acres within city limits is being considered for a mid-income level sub-division. City-owned land near the golf course is being eyed for high-end five-acre lots.

“Younger people are excited about not being in a reactive role but being aggressively proactive where they are looking to start new projects and pushing ideas at every opportunity,” said Drown.

Alice Tibbetts, co-owner with Phil Houston of the North Shore Adventure Park, said momentum is growing.

“We are at a tipping point and things are moving quickly. It comes back to Phil’s tagline that ‘Silver Bay should be the hub of the north shore’,” Tibbetts said.

Now in its third year, the Adventure Park – with a ropes course and zipline – has seen great success and is ready to expand, said Tibbetts. The only thing holding them back is the cost of building materials, which are now driven to almost double pre-pandemic prices.

“We have a plan ready to add axe-throwing but haven’t found a contractor who isn’t too busy or will even give us an estimate because the costs are going up by the day,” said Tibbetts.

Once demand for contractors has eased, she anticipates adding to the ropes course and a stage wrapped around a cliff. Tibbetts called their long-term “dream vision” a comprehensive development that seamlessly connects to the Black Beach area via the already existing ATV tunnel running under Highway 61.

This summer, the Adventure Park will collaborate with an aggregate seller of produce from the Finland farmers market to bring a satellite produce stand, crafters and food trucks on-site.

In town, a new coffee shop and renovated license bureau with a gift shop and new owners has Tibbetts sensing new energy afoot. “There’s a lot of transformational energy moving forward, and we’re really pleased we can be part of everything happening here.”

Hoping to capitalize on the tourist traffic moving between current attractions, David Klemmer is bringing a new miniature golf course into a space strategically located near the only hotel in town and Black Beach.

“I love mini-golf because everybody can play it, and this course will accommodate the hotel and campground and ropes course and hopefully more people will stop in Silver Bay,” Klemmer said. The course is under construction, set to open in July.

“A lot of people have discovered the north shore since they put in the campground and ropes course. It’s opened eyes and people are looking for stuff to do up here.”

Born and raised in Silver Bay, and a 20-year employee at the mining facility, he sees first-hand the changing attitudes toward tourism. “The city is becoming more welcoming to tourism. It’s not going away, so why don’t we take advantage of that?”