If you’re looking for a barometer on Ely’s prosperity, look in the stands

The opinion pages in the Ely Echo have been lively with plenty of back and forth on how Ely is doing and in what direction it should go. With that in mind, there was a grounding of sorts during the Ely High School pep rally on the football field Tuesday morning.
This is a traditional event at EHS with the dance line performing, various relay races between the top four grades, the tug of war competition and the crowning of the king and queen.
As the festivities were getting underway, a picture was tweeted out by the Echo showing the stands which looked fairly empty.
“In my day these stands were full,” was the instant Twitter reply from an EHS graduate.
It was about to get worse. The photo was taken with the dance line and the 10 members of the royal court on the field.
Once the games started and more kids came down onto the field, the stands could have been reduced to one section with room to spare, including the parents who had come to watch.
During a lull in the action, the announcer (one of the dads volunteering his services), suggested that the band play another number. He stuck his head out the window of the press box and said, “Forget that,” when he saw there weren’t any students left in the band area. They were on the field making up the teams for the inter-grade teams.
We’ve said that one of the barometers of the community’s health can be found by how many seats are occupied at 600 East Harvey Street. Fewer and fewer kids do not make for a growing, healthy community.
This is a reflection of a lack of livable wage jobs available here. Yes, there are jobs, plenty of them in the minimum wage category but far too few in the livable wage category, in Minnesota of $40,000/year and up. The median household income in Minnesota is $59,126. In St. Louis County it’s $46,231. If both parents work full-time at jobs that pay the minimum wage of $8 an hour, their household income is $32,640.
Since there’s been so much discussion over the possibility of copper-nickel mining, let’s look at wages in that category.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, mining jobs in Minnesota pay an average of $83,359. And here’s the best part: there are many people who live here right now who fall in that category. They work at Northshore Mine in Babbitt or maybe at one of the mines in Mt. Iron, Virginia or Eveleth. But they live here, in Ely.
Those are the kinds of jobs that afford families the ability to live here without having to go on government assistance to pay their bills. Those are the kinds of jobs that a community needs to survive.
Our elected officials know the importance of good paying jobs. They know those wage earners are also the income tax and sales tax payers who put a good chunk of the money into state coffers.
We can argue over whether copper-nickel mining can be done safely. And it’s good to have those discussions, whether in the newspaper or in the coffee shops in town. The ability of people to discuss and yes, disagree, is what our nation has been founded on. And when you read these opinion pages, you know that freedom of speech is alive and well in Ely, Minnesota.
We’re heartened by the progress we’ve seen in Ely over the last several weeks. The sale of several long-vacant downtown properties, the news that Wintergreen is coming back from the dead and the prospect for redevelopment in the business district are all positive signs.
But amid all of that, what isn’t doing well is our local school system. The problems at 696 start and end with a lack of students. The more kids there are, the more dollars the district receives and the more teachers and staff who are needed.
For the past decade or so, the district has had to basically turn over to volunteers the maintenance and improvements at athletic facilities, from the baseball field to the gymnasium to the football stadium. If you saw people painting the stadium over the past two weeks, you might have recognized them. They were all volunteers.
Looking in the stands Tuesday morning the reality of our current economic position was clear. While the numbers of students has somewhat stabilized after precipitous drops, we’ve got a lot of work to do. When the stands are full and the district is in need of more classroom space instead of worrying about tearing down unneeded buildings, we’ll know things are really looking up. That’s our barometer.