Bear Center to open new storefront

by Tom Coombe

Plans for a full-scale bear museum in the Ely area are advancing on two fronts.<BR><BR>The North American Bear Center has found a new home for its storefront mini-museum, in the former Hill’s Canoe Outfitter building on Ely’s far east end, and it could be open for business as soon as this week.<BR><BR>Meanwhile, NABC supporters continue to work toward raising the money and acquiring the property they need to build a larger facility outside of town.<BR><BR>Last month, St. Louis County’s planning commission approved a conditional use permit that would allow for development of a bear center on a 33.5-acre parcel of tax-forfeited land, less than a mile outside of Ely on the south side of Highway 169.<BR><BR>The county had earlier given its approval to plans for a museum on the property now occupied by Emma’s Bed and Breakfast, also on Highway 169, but the NABC has to-date been unable to come up with the money it needs to buy it.<BR><BR>The NABC has since turned its attention to the tax-forfeited land, asking Morse Township to acquire the property and turn it over to the non-profit organization. Township officials have received the request but haven’t yet taken any formal action.<BR><BR>NABC officials envision a bear center that would incorporate educational programs, interactive exhibits, research laboratories and facilities for bears in need of clinical rehabilitation.<BR><BR>According to a study completed by the University of Minnesota-Duluth, a bear center would have an annual economic impact of at least $1.5 million in Ely.<BR><BR>And while efforts to develop the larger museum continue, the NABC is maintaining a presence in Ely.<BR><BR>Perhaps as soon as this weekend, the NABC will welcome visitors at its mini-museum, in a brand-new location.<BR><BR>The last two years, the NABC has had a downtown storefront presence, drawing thousands of people to see bear photos, small exhibits and special programs.<BR><BR>But a change in ownership in the building they once occupied - the facility that now houses Ely’s Radio Shack business - forced the NABC to look east and outside the core downtown area.<BR><BR>The new building has several advantages, according to NABC Executive Director Bob Matson.<BR><BR>“We’re excited to move to the new site at 2032 East Sheridan,” said Matson. “This will allow us more room to expand our exhibits and perhaps charge a modest admission for the first time.”<BR><BR>The NABC may have a black bear exhibit donated for use at its new home, and further taxidermy is set to be loaned to the organization.<BR><BR>According to Matson, the possible admission fee has not yet been finalized and exhibits are not likely to be up until June 15.<BR><BR>In the works for several years, the NABC would include exhibits centering on the research of biologist Lynn Rogers of Ely and would include areas for bear viewing.<BR><BR>NABC supporters say the project will provide a natural tie-in with existing entities including the International Wolf Center, Vermilion Community College and the area’s flourishing tourism market.<BR><BR>There are also plans for partnerships between the NABC and both the Wolf Center and the Dorothy Molter Museum, in an effort to lure visitors to all three local attractions this year.<BR><BR>The effort to locate the NABC on a permanent basis outside of town is ongoing, and a major capital campaign kicked off two years ago with supporters hoping to raise $1.3 million.