Progress in Ely is often two steps forward and three steps back

The Ely Echo’s annual Progress Edition is a great example of people believing in our area’s future and stepping up to the plate to make this a better place to work and live.
Yet, even with 21 pages of stories, photos and advertising there are some disturbing trends happening here.
This year all indications point to three restaurants not re-opening. Three. Plus Ely’s oldest outfitting business closed its doors and had its assets auctioned off. How many jobs were lost for the summer? If our tourism economy is doing so well, how can this be?
For one, we don’t know how our tourism economy is doing because there isn’t an accurate way to measure it. Even those who point to the Ely area lodging tax know this is a flawed report.
The lodging tax income is derived as a percentage of what was charged. This isn’t a reflection of the number of rooms rented or the number of heads in beds.
We don’t even know how many beds, rooms or heads we’re talking about. Other cities have worked to get more detailed information. Even the number of rooms that are available and how many nights they were rented would be a much more accurate figure. Using a percentage of a fluctuating level of income is nearly useless.
Let’s add in another factor. We know that tourism is not the only driver of room rentals. Businesses like Twin Metals Minnesota are a major contributor to our hotel economy. From consultants to drilling company employees, TMM has a major impact on the economy.
We’ve been criticized for our support of mining exploration. But there aren’t too many businesses in town who would turn away customers who come here because of Twin Metals. They simply cannot afford to turn away a customer despite their political beliefs.
There are numerous stories this year in our Progress Edition of investments made here. But there aren’t nearly enough. We’re not seeing enough new businesses open, especially ones that employ people year-round, with full benefits and paychecks that can support a family.
Our school district has to deal with a higher rate of children who qualify for free or reduced lunches. This federally defined, income-based program accurately reflects how many families are barely hanging on here, despite parents working multiple jobs and doing everything they can to make ends meet.
Teachers in the Ely school district can find one benefit from our struggling economy. Because of the income levels here, the Ely school district qualifies as a poverty level district. Teachers can get some help with repaying their student loans. Alas, something positive.
We are proud of this area and all that it offers. Tourism is a part of our economy. But it is a very limited part because of the lack of year-round work it provides. In Ely, businesses close for months at a time because there are no customers. And when they are closed, there are no jobs for those workers.
At this time of year many of those seasonal businesses advertise for workers. But those workers aren’t here. We are seeing businesses now bringing in students from other countries to live and work here in the summer. They have to. There aren’t enough students in our high school to fill those jobs.
We need to make progress that is steady and ongoing. While it’s great to celebrate new owners and renovation projects, losing three businesses within a one block radius is a telling sign.
Ely is not an easy place to make money. Every business profiled in this year’s Progress Edition either knows, or shortly will know this. Our hats are off to each and every business owner who has stepped up to make their mark here. Let’s hope their cash registers ring year-round and our economy can do better than two steps forward and three steps back.