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Empty storefronts concern new Ely business owners

Keith Vandervort
Posted 6/13/19

ELY – Two new business owners here took the Ely Economic Development Authority (EEDA) to task Tuesday night over the issue of business development in the downtown corridor, especially their efforts …

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Empty storefronts concern new Ely business owners

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ELY – Two new business owners here took the Ely Economic Development Authority (EEDA) to task Tuesday night over the issue of business development in the downtown corridor, especially their efforts to help fill empty storefronts.

Mike Gronski, owner of the Old Fashioned Candy store, 228 E. Sheridan St., and Kris Winkelman, owner of Arrowhead Outdoors, 1810 E. Sheridan St., are both relatively new business owners in town. They questioned EEDA members for half of their hour-long meeting and asked them to describe their efforts in encouraging other new business owners to fill the empty buildings.

Gronski asked, “What is the city’s economic development plan in general? Your website is outdated and does not provide much information.”

EEDA president Heidi Omerza was quick to tout the organization’s updated website (www.eeda.ely.mn.us) that has been under construction for many months and just recently went online.

“Every year, we have priorities, and we talk about them at every meeting,” Omerza said. “We have an economic developer. Our philosophy is to make sure we have the right (business) environment and grow what we already have here. Our economic developer, John Fedo, also helps us take advantage of the opportunities that are before us.”

Omerza noted that for 2019, EEDA’s priorities center around the new recreational trailhead and west end development, and continuing work on providing broadband and high-speed fiber infrastructure in the downtown area. “This has been an ongoing process,” she said.

Clerk-Treasurer Harold Langowski noted that the EEDA has used the resources of the Blandin Foundation to advance the broadband initiative business marketing using online media. “The idea is to help businesses market themselves,” he said. We are also using the efforts of Incredible Ely and the Google Business App as a new initiative. We weren’t aware that so many Ely businesses aren’t found on Google.”

Gronski returned to his main concern for appearing before the EEDA. “There are a lot of empty storefronts here,” he said. “I hear about it from my customers. They ask me why everything is closed. Is there any incentive to get these storefronts filled? Is there any concern from the city about these vacancies?”

Mayor Chuck Novak took a stab at it. “We are concerned,” he said. “As a city government, we can’t start businesses to put in there. Some businesses close because there aren’t any customers. Some business close because of outside influences.”

He referenced the impending shuttering of the Shopko Hometown and Family Dollar stores as corporate decisions. “We have no control over that,” Novak said. “Some businesses close because of self-inflicted wounds such as a lack of working capital to survive over the winter.”

In veiled optimism of future sulfide mining opportunities, Novak added, “We pretty much rely on tourism right now.”

As for filling the empty storefronts, Novak stressed that the city’s economic development efforts include putting out feelers, working with the IRRR and the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED). “Those conversations continue down in St. Paul. We keep making an effort, but it is a long, hard slog.” He bemoaned that fact that Ely, “sitting in the hinterland,” doesn’t get the recognition afforded bigger cities.

Gronski pressed the issue, “Are there funds available to incentivize a business to open a store here?”

Novak responded, “We continue to work with DEED, but we have to be careful with the kind of businesses we are going to get. We have no employees here. There are stories of mangers working double time. We have to find a way of getting an influx of employees.”

EEDA member Paul Kess pointed out that funding sources exist to help business owners grow or expand, and even fix up their storefronts. “We have a person on staff to help businesses,” he said. “We are fairly active in that arena.”

Winkelman related that she called Fedo about a year ago seeking business development funds. “He told me that the city ran out of money so I would have to wait,” she said.

Fedo noted that some programs, such as the Business Energy Retrofit (BER) program do get refunded by the IRRR so the popular initiative can continue. “We are very aggressive in recommending BER programs to our local businesses. We have taken more than our share of BER money. But, there are other such programs available,” he said.

He asserted that it takes a combination of many funding sources to help out a particular business. “A lot of times, it is not magic, it is hard work, and a case of continuing to be aggressive,” Fedo said.

Gronski wondered about help available for new businesses to move to town. “Where do those potential owners get help?” he asked. “When I was looking to move here, I had to create my own business plan on my own. I couldn’t find the information that I needed, such as how many tourists come here, and how much money they spend. I think that type of information would be very helpful,” he said.

Langowski said that many of the empty storefronts are privately owned, and that many of the ones that could be worked on are tax-forfeit properties and should probably be razed. “Buildings like the State Theater needed a million dollars in investment,” he said. “A lot of what we work on is infrastructure and help to support what businesses need to be here.”

He mentioned the broadband project, downtown beautification, new sidewalks and other efforts to make businesses more attractive. “We look to make these buildings more feasible to be reopened.We looked at more pop-up initiatives, and as soon as we did that, they went right to lease and opened,” he said.

Novak encourage Gronski and Winkelman to join city commissions and committees to help focus business development and community improvement efforts.

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Richard

While I support all members of our community be they residents, business owners, employees, and visitors I can't help but think that the animus directed towards the City Council and the various Committee Members is misaligned. The Ely Economic Development Authority is working hard to serve all Elyites and our surrounding community. Our Chamber of Commerce is the entity that should be supporting and promoting the Ely area business community. The Chamber should be representing the issues of concern for small businesses collectively while encouraging and supporting entrepreneurs, start ups, and existing businesses whether they are Chamber members or not freeing up the City and our elected officials to ensure that the City's infrastructure supports smart growth and ample opportunities.

Thursday, June 13