ELY – With $3 million nearly in hand and after years of planning, city officials here are looking forward to beginning construction of the Ely Regional Trailhead facility at the west entrance …
ELY – With $3 million nearly in hand and after years of planning, city officials here are looking forward to beginning construction of the Ely Regional Trailhead facility at the west entrance to this city at the end of the road.
But how will the building be used? Ideas recently bantered about include developing the showpiece as a welcome center, rest stop, tourist information booth, parking hub and staging area for multiple recreational trails, canoe adventure permit station, and more.
The city-owned facility is not likely to be staffed by city employees, but according to city council members who discussed the project last week as the Ely Economic Development Authority, talks are underway with other entities who might consider staffing the building.
The city’s economic developer, John Fedo, reported to authority members last week that “engaging a process” of planning to construct the facility restarted in earnest last week. “We will work on reengaging the bidding process and determine how this project, we have been waiting several years for, will become a reality. We are looking forward to that happening as quickly as we can,” Fedo said.
He noted that the city of Ely’s success in procuring both the state and federal grant dollars for the regional tourism growth effort was due largely “because the program fit us like a glove.”
The American Rescue Plan entertained almost $750 million worth of similar projects across the country. The Minnesota Legislature and Governor’s office awarded nearly $1.3 million to the Ely tourism project last year.
“We took the experience that we had in making that (successful) application with the state bonding bill and used that for the federal application,” Fedo said. “There was no coasting. This was a difficult application process, and it was extremely competitive. It took into account four states that dealt with the federal EDA office in Chicago. Those officials were extremely helpful. We were able to reallocate the information that we used on the state level, allowed us to apply that in new context in order to be successful on the federal level.”
City officials were floored last summer when the original bids for the Trailhead facility came in at nearly twice what they expected. With just the $1.3 million in state bonding money available, the project was put on the shelf until more dollars could be procured.
“We are hoping that the bids that were received last time will be slightly less than where we are at this time around,” Fedo said. “Based on our conversations with both architects and engineers, that in fact, has happened. Until you actually go to bids, you don’t know what you’ve got. We are hopeful that by the end of this (construction) season that we will still be in a position to put this project out for bids.”
Ely mayor Roger Skraba said the original working plans for the building that are in hand will essentially be used as planning goes forward for the tourist facility.
“We have been in talks with Cindy Smyka and the Ely Tourism Bureau and how that can fit in it,” he said. “She is currently working with the U.S. Forest Service and the district ranger is trying to get a full-time person in that building. This is all preliminary.”
If the prospect of other entities staffing the building indeed happens, the original layout of the floor plan of the building may need to be altered.
“There are three offices in the original plan, and they are not very big,” Skraba said. “They were planned to be storage offices for three different groups, including the trails people from the snowmobile and ATV clubs.”
Skraba said he wants all entities to be involved in planning for the building use.
“At least then everyone can understand, and maybe all have the same vision. I understand the USFS wants to be able to write (Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness) permits out of there, too, so they would have a staff person in there. Formally, none of this has been brought forward yet. That was kind of the intent from the beginning, that this would be that sort of a building. We are trying to create a positive (place) with restrooms, a trailhead for people to park their vehicle, community meetings, and whatever. There can be so much more for that building.”
He welcomed community members to come forward with ideas, and suggested city council members continue the discussion during a study session or a future council meeting. “Information is key. In the last week, a lot of things have been happening that not all sides may not be aware of,” Skraba said.
He noted that Clerk-Treasurer Harold Langowski, who was absent from the July 26 EEDA meeting “does not want to go back through a whole architectural scheme because it cost a lot of money to get where we are.”
Fedo noted that in the early planning stages for the facility, officials went through “a fairly long and involved process” about usage and activities.
“We clearly established that the city will own and operate the building, and that was under the direction of the State Department of Natural Resources,” he said. “We are going to be held to that same accountability by federal mandate. In that context, we are not changing the ownership. What we are looking at is flexibility and utilization. We are fairly well committed to the design based on affordability.”
The Trailhead facility construction represents the second phase of an extensive west-end development project envisioned by city leaders. The completed first phase, through more than $1 million in state bonding support, included infrastructure, new roadway and pavement in the vicinity. The trailhead parking and welcome center of the second phase was initially envisioned to serve as an entry point for the Prospector Loop Trail, Mesabi Trail and David Dill Taconite Trail. The future third phase of the project, perhaps costing an additional $3 million, would include expansion of the Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital campus, construction of workforce housing for the city, and redevelopment of the former city garage property.
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