Piragis growing across street

Outlet store moving to new structure, adding more jobs

by Tom Coombe
An Ely business has a major expansion in the works - one that will add new jobs and change the landscape of the western edge of the community’s business district.
Piragis Northwoods Company is moving its outlet store across the street to a brand-new structure that will be located next to Northern Grounds. on three city lots.
But before a project estimated at $400,000 to $500,000 moves forward, the building that most recently was home to Looney’s Northwoods Emporium will have to be demolished.
Ely city officials cleared the way for that step Tuesday, authorizing an application for demolition funds from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.
Owner Steve Piragis briefed city projects committee members about the plans Monday and his daughter Elli addressed the city council Tuesday, when the grant request was approved unanimously.
Job growth is part of the plan, according to Steve Piragis.
Because the new outlet store will be open year-round rather than seasonally, the net impact will include a year-round manager as well as “at least three or four other FTE (full-time equivalent) to run the new store year-round.”
The expansion also creates more room for the Piragis’ outfitting operation.
“It allows outfitting to grow and become more efficient in their building,” said Steve Piragis. “The hope is this new outlet will bring new customers to Ely regionally in all seasons.”
In a letter to city officials, Piragis said the “look of the building should reflect the industrial mining history in Ely,” including enlarged photos inside of Ely’s early history.
Mining, in a roundabout way, cast a shadow over the discussions held by city officials on Tuesday.
If approved, the IRRRB funding to pay for the demolition of the Looney’s structure would come from production taxes paid by area taconite mines.
Steve Piragis has been a vocal opponent of proposed copper-nickel mining ventures in the region, a point noted by council member Al Forsman.
But Forsman said the benefits of the project outweigh his political differences with Piragis.
“While we certainly have our differences of opinion about what is required for a sustainable economy, I do support the addition of these jobs in Ely,” said Forsman.
Forsman said that the city has also previously lent support for other businesses, including demolition projects.
Mayor Chuck Novak agreed.
“My rule number one is to debate the issue, not the person, and the issue here is economic development,” said Novak.
Steve Piragis said he’s hopeful the project has other benefits as well.
“Outlets seem to do quite well even when other brick and mortar stores are struggling,” he said. “It should benefit all Ely retail and restaurants we hope.”