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Tourism study

Analysis missed the way that tourism really builds vibrant communities

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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.

Comments

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Steve Jacobson

Again I will mention the "Boom and Bust" of mininig is negligable compared to the "Boom and Bust" of tourism! Every year, and we're talking about never missing a year, the tourists leave the area for nine months!

I guess what I am happy about is that they have finally admitted that no one can survive on the squeezing nickels on the tourists.

These were mining towns and they can be mining towns again if those who want to keep it their own private playground with us peons serving them at minimum wage just get out of the way!

Thursday, March 2
jtormoen

I oft wonder if Orrcountry has sneaked back in with a pseudonym

Saturday, March 4
Reid Carron

Mr. Jacobson, you must be leaving the area for nine months--because the tourists are here year round. Clearly, more are here during the summer and fall, but people from elsewhere visit Ely throughout the year. But tourists aren't really the point. You wrote ". . . no one can survive on the squeezing nickels on the tourists." Did you actually read what Marshall wrote? The Ely area is home to thousands of people who are here because of the Boundary Waters. Retirees (like me), vacation home owners, people who move here to start businesses or who have jobs that they can perform from anywhere--these are the people who keep Ely going. We shop in Ely. Where do the miners shop? Ask plumbers, electricians, the lumber yard, the hardware store, the restaurants--where does their business come from? Ely is stable and sustainable. It hasn't been a mining town for 50 years. Copper mines in the Boundary Waters watershed would gut the National Forest, irreparably damage the Boundary Waters, and drive away the people on whose future Ely depends. Maybe that's what some people want. But I don't think that's what the Ely business community wants--if they are honest about it.

Saturday, March 4
Steve Jacobson

No Reid I do not and cannot leave the area for nine months of the year! I have stated in the past that I both work in one of the mines and I am a small business owner here. Many years ago when I started my business I saw some great traffic through the three summer months. As the business got more established I saw the summer business season expand by a couple of weeks on each side of June and August. Eventually I was actually still making money into the end of October. Business in the spring increased to the first week of April. But since then my business has been flat or decreased a small amount as far as sales go. This would be for most of the last ten years. So I considered it a success that I only lost money five months of the year. But, very slowly business slowed because the lack of locals here on a daily basis. There are less students around and just plain less customers coming into the business. Is it because of competition? No because many of my competitors close for the winter. If the number of people moving into the area to retire, vacation or to start new businesses was at the level you speak of I would be more than excited. I know I would benefit from it. I can honestly say that I can walk the walk and talk the talk when it comes to both understanding how many people are moving up here and doing business in Ely and how much I benefit form a good paying mining income.

Sunday, March 5
Shaking my head

Stop the whining and start mining! Steve makes so much more sense than Reid. I go to Ely a few times a year. A trip to the used bookstore, and lunch at the Ely Steakhouse is about it. Ely is a dead zone in the winter. I avoid going there in the summer on weekends due to traffic. The BWCAW gets approximately 150 thousand visitors a year ( far less than in the past),and that numberincludes locals, and folks that enter from all entry points. Most visitors that travel to the area have purchased everything they need before they get here. They may buy a meal or some gasoline. Ely will be booming again, and not because of retirees relocating. Remember folks: If it's not grown, it's mined!

Wednesday, March 8