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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Misfire in Ely

Is the EADA trying to encourage or discourage new business in town?


When it comes to economic development in small towns, particularly for those in remote areas like ours, you have to put your best foot forward. Every town has a few assets to tout, and successful economic development groups do a good job of emphasizing those pluses and discounting the minuses. Boosterism comes with the territory.

And then there is the Ely Area Development Association, which is, let’s just say, unusual. We don’t mean to be critical of a volunteer effort, which is currently the situation with the EADA, and we hope that the group can take the following as constructive criticism.

But we’ve been looking at the kind of information that community developers post online, and, with the exception of Ely, it’s relentlessly positive. After all, if your mission is to attract new business to your town, you don’t accomplish that task with a tale of woe.

Here, for example, is what you’ll find on the website of the Cass County Economic Development Corporation: “We are the local “Go To” economic development development organization; here to help your business thrive and grow in Cass County, MN! Come join us! We have a thriving business atmosphere along the Highway #371 corridor. The cities of Walker, Pine River, and Pillager and the beautiful northern woods around Leech Lake is the perfect place for you and your business.”

Or consider this from the Roseau Economic Development Authority, which tells business prospects that there is “no better opportunity in Minnesota or the nation.” They continue: “Roseau’s small town character provides the perfect atmosphere for families with children, while still offering many activities and culture only found in larger communities. Roseau is able to capture the best of both worlds. In addition, Roseau provides first-class healthcare, education and community services. The final strength of the community is its workforce. Roseau provides a quality workforce with a wide-range of skills. The Roseau EDA asks you to take a good look at Roseau for your next business location or expansion.”

Here, by contrast, is what you’ll find for background at the website for the Ely Area Development Association, which begins with a recitation of the history of declining school enrollment since the closure of the Pioneer Mine. It informs prospective business owners that the community’s population has declined by 28 percent since 1980 and that its percentage of residents living in poverty is well above the state and national average. And to further make the sale, the EADA adds this enticing bit of news. “A survey has revealed that 29 commercial properties are listed for sale on Sheridan Street with still more properties offered for sale on Chapman and Camp streets.  Almost all indices confirm that economic development and job growth in the Ely area is stagnant and in decline.”

If the purpose of the EADA is to actively discourage new business recruitment, information like this should do the job quite nicely. If the group’s volunteers are focused, instead, on sending a political message about the woes of their community, even at the risk of harming economic development, mission accomplished. But if the EADA is actually hoping to attract new business or encourage expansion of existing business, this is entirely counterproductive and it should be removed from the Internet, immediately.

The EADA website makes no mention of major assets, like Superior National Forest, the Boundary Waters, or that it is home to a thriving community college. It makes no mention of the accolades the community regularly receives as a mecca for outdoor recreation. It’s defined only as a dying, former mining town. This is just another example of that odd penchant for gloom and doom that pervades so much of Ely, as if it’s the only community that has lost population due to closures and increased automation in the mining industry. Here’s the reality: Almost every current and former mining town is in the same situation. The only exceptions are those communities that manage to find an economic future based on an alternative. Such as the future that some folks in Ely are working hard to build. Rather than actively discouraging that effort, perhaps the EADA could reconsider its mission and begin to take a positive approach to Ely’s future.