Redevelopment and revitalization in Ely by the Otts, one building at a time

by Tom Coombe
The landscape and look of Ely’s downtown has been transformed by the Ott family, who have purchases, renovated and repurposed numerous buildings.
And more is yet to come.
Tanner Ott provided an update at this week’s Tuesday Group luncheon - recapping some of the projects completed by his family over the last several years and offering a glimpse of the future.
What’s in store?
Most notably and soon to come is Domino’s Pizza, which is set to move into the old Pizza Hut/Two Gringos building on East Sheridan Street.
Ott also said an announcement is looming about a tenant for the First Avenue East building most recently occupied by Crapola, which is moving to another downtown structure.
“We always let the organization make their own announcement when they’re ready,” Ott said during the event at Grand Ely Lodge. “There is somebody very interested in it.”
Over the last decade, the Otts have renovated a slew of downtown buildings, including the current homes of both Insula, Northern Grounds and the Ely Folk School.
One of the family’s most notable projects was the renovation of Ely’s Historic State Theater and the adjacent Salerno Land Sales and Frank’s Variety buildings.
The theater has been open for more than a year and recently opened a second screening room, and the complex includes a revamped concession area, basement lounge and space that could serve as a future restaurant.
Ott indicated the top floor of the State Theater is also serving as an Air BnB short-term rental.
Several other buildings could also have new looks in the future, but timelines are less clear.
Among them are the former Portage Bar and Jakich Building, the former Wilderness Outfitters and Pastika Furniture buildings, the old Ford Garage and the Tanner Hospital - known in some circles at “The Castle.”
“Those are in our portfolio,” said Ott. “We do have plans and dreams and ideas for some that are more fine tuned and some that are more open.”
Ott said the Jakich Building would be a future home for a retail operations.
“I think there’s a market in town for more little retail shops and services,” said Ott. “We think we can get this done and get another storefront up and running in Ely.”
Ott said Ely has made progress on the retail front, identifying the 400 block of East Sheridan Street as one that has filled in recent years.
He said the first block of East Sheridan is one of the weaker retail areas but added “hopefully with some of the things that are happening on that side of the street, there will be better progress on that block as well.”
Ott asked for input from an audience of about 60 people about Ely’s needs - and responses included women’s clothing and shoe stores.
The audience also identified Ely’s need for more child care options and workforce and other housing.
Housing could be in the offing at one of the now-vacant buildings in the Ott portfolio.
He said there’s “possibly a market for more condo-style housing in town” and indicated that’s one of the options for the old Ford Garage, located on East Conan Street near the Ely Steam Bath.
“There’s probably enough space to do four units there,” said Ott.
Ott was also instrumental in the development of Ely’s downtown pocket park, located on the former Pamida lot.
That project was done with the assistance of the city of Ely and the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board’s Streetscapes Program. But it’s entirely complete and could eventually include a nod to Ely’s history.
“We have a crazy idea of putting some sort of old broken bush plane or playground equipment that looks like a bush plane to highlight the character and history of Ely,” said Ott.
History plays a big role in the Ott redevelopment efforts.
Ott, who hails from Missouri, said he and his family are drawn to Ely by “its strong sense of place.”
“One of the things our company values is history,” said Ott. “There’s so much history... a lot to draw from. Ely has a strong sense of place, so much character, so much culture. How many towns can you go to where you drive to the gas station in February and see a guy with eight sled dogs in the back of his pickup?”