On the cusp of a contentious election year, Ely finds new ways to talk about divisive issues
by Catharine Richert
MPR News 101.7 FM
At 4:30 p.m. on a winter Wednesday, Lacey Squier is just one of a few patrons in Zaverl’s Bar in downtown Ely.
“This is truly one of my favorites, because it’s got that cozy bar feel,” she said. “It’s also a place that’s known for being a pro-mining bar.”
But Squier isn’t pro-mining.
In fact, she works for a nonprofit that seeks to expand Ely’s economy without new mining operations, an industry that’s historically supported the region’s economy.
Aside from just liking the place, Squier said she wanted to meet at the bar because it’s a visual representation of Ely’s complicated politics. Things don’t always fall along party lines.
“In this community, sometimes our political and social division manifests itself on the mining issue,” she said. “So, this is a really apt place to be.”
She points to posters on the wall that say things like “Mining Supports Us” and “We support mining AND clean water.” They’re artifacts of a community whose heritage and economy are deeply rooted in these two natural resources: The mineral deposits underfoot and the Boundary Waters wilderness on the horizon.
As Ely’s population declines, mining advocates say the region needs more steady mining jobs. Environmentalists argue proposed nearby copper-nickel mining operations will taint the lakes, which draw thousands of tourists annually.
The story of mining and the lakes and who supports what is an old one in Ely. It’s been going on for years, weaving in and out of court actions to stop mining or to let it proceed. In Washington, some Democrats have championed the Boundary Waters, enacting a 20-year mining ban in the area. Generally, Republicans have fought them. Currently, two proposed copper-nickel mining operations in the area are on hold.
But here in Ely, on the cusp of a presidential election that could usher in another Republican White House and once again rechart the course of the region’s future, there’s a new effort to reduce the impact division has had on this community.
For two months, a growing group of Ely residents has gathered at the senior center to practice being better listeners, to learn the art of curiosity and to examine their own stereotypes about people they disagree with.
Squire is an enthusiastic supporter and participant. As someone who is constantly thinking about Ely’s economic survival, she said it’s a necessary exercise.
“I think we come to our stance on issues through fear — what am I fearing that compels me to take this stance?” she said. “And to some extent, I think we might all fear the same thing: the demise of our community, the suffering of our neighbors.”
‘People do yell at each other’
The next night, Squier is among 70 people packed into the Ely Senior Center for the second meeting of the local chapter of Braver Angels, a nonprofit born in the days after the 2016 presidential election that seeks to help communities bridge what’s dividing them. (Braver Angels is also a partner in a new reporting initiative from MPR News, Talking Sense.)
The first assignment on the agenda is reading a list of values held by the opposite political party.
“I just observed something that I am not happy to admit,” said group member Thea Sheldon, who counts herself among the liberal people in the room. “When I read through the values and the concerns of the other side, I immediately went into my defense and my arguments. It was so automatic. I wasn’t even talking to a person and I already had the argument.”
It’s that sort of insight that Ely Braver Angels Alliance co-chair Johnna Hyde wants to see more of.
After she graduated from Carleton College in 1971, Hyde hitched a ride to Ely and started tending bar.
“That is the way to get to know what the issues are for sure,” she said.
While Hyde was serving the beer, she was getting served a crash course in Ely’s political complexity — on everything from people’s views on controlling the region’s wolf population to their takes around restrictions on lake use.
But no issue is more divisive here than mining, said Hyde. Over the years, she’s seen the vitriol on all sides — in letters to the editor, on social media, on lawn signs and even at an annual parade.
“And people do yell at each other on the street, I have seen that,” she said. “We need to create a culture in which we are tolerant and accepting of each other and still disagree. We’re never going to find solutions if we’re just fighting.”
How to grow the economy?
Fighting is hard to avoid when mining is such a deeply personal issue. Environmentalists seeking to stop mining don’t seem to realize this, said Gerald Tyler, who leads Up North Jobs, an Ely-based nonprofit that advocates for mining.
“What we wish they would understand and realize is what mining has meant to the city and this town,” he said. “We love tourism. But you can’t depend upon the job, especially if you’re a single parent, to provide enough to educate your children, to provide health care, because very few of the tourism jobs provide health care.”
With generous benefits, Tyler said mining jobs stand to keep and attract young families. That leads to more kids in the schools, a more vibrant downtown, a bigger tax base — the promise that this currently shrinking community will be relevant in the future.
He worries that current state and federal mining policy will make Ely a less and less attractive place to do business in the future.
“I will say it 1,000 times: Ely is in a death spiral.”
As manager of Boundary Waters Connect, Lacey Squier is concerned with attracting new residents, too, but is focused more on leaning into tourism, the arts and other economic drivers that aren’t going to risk what she says is Ely’s greatest asset, its natural beauty.
“We have an understanding that the old model of economic development was in courting big business, courting industry to come to your town,” she said. “There is an argument to be made that the newer, more contemporary model of economic development is to make a community so compelling, so enriching to people that relocate and grow the economy that way.”
Ely has found the energy and goodwill in the recent past to bridge the mining-tourism division. In 2016, MPR News found a town willing to call a truce around mining as it enjoyed a mini-economic renaissance.
Since then, median household income has grown, although data compiled by Minnesota Compass, a Wilder Research project, showed more than one-third of Ely households earning less than $35,000 annually between 2017 and 2021.
The perception that Ely’s economy is struggling is common.
“If you think you can come here, have one job and make it, good luck,” said Nick Wognum, who is co-lead of the new Braver Angels group and publisher of the Ely Echo newspaper. “You really need to have more than that to make it here.” Wognum even has side gigs, owning a second newspaper in a nearby town and serving as clerk for a township and a local board.
Since the pandemic, Ely Mayor Heidi Omerza said it’s become harder to attract workers.
“Pretty soon, it’ll be really hard to find people to fill jobs because it’ll be the summertime. And that’s when we need the most people,” as tourists flood the community. She said some restaurants, faced with a labor shortage, have imposed limited hours.
Affordable housing is a complicating factor, she said.
“If you were a plumber, if you were an electrician, you could get a job. If you were some sort of remodel construction-type person, you could get a job,” she said. “But you might not be able to find a place to live.”
Shared values, dueling views
Omerza said the people who are moving to Ely generally fall into a few categories: retirees from Minnesota’s urban areas, seasonal workers who don’t stay long and people attracted to the Boundary Waters who work remotely or in tourism.
Some, like Tyler, believe these newcomers are generally liberal and anti-mining, or just don’t understand the industry’s history enough to care, although there’s no good data to back this up.
But at the Ely Braver Angels meeting, Reid Carron said he sees things differently.
Carron is a transplant, although his wife grew up in Ely. They’re both key figures in the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters, which, depending on the source, is the best or worst thing that’s happened to Ely in recent years given the organization’s role in blocking copper-nickel mining.
“One thing that I am confident of is there is a lot of quiet support from people who have lived here a long time who don’t want to, understandably, offend their neighbors,” he said. “At bottom, they think that copper mining would be a terrible thing to have happened to this community.”
Carron took a seat next to his friend Bill Erzar, who worked in the mines for 34 years.
“I would not feel right, acknowledging somebody that was not giving a factual statement,” Erzar shared with the group.
Common facts are essential to progress, he said. But he doesn’t believe the data Carron’s side of the mining issue advertises, that mining is inherently bad for the water or tourism provides more jobs for the region.
And Carron said he doesn’t buy pro-mining talking points.
“If it’s just, ‘I hear you’ and ‘I hear you, too,’ where have we gotten? Maybe we’re having a beer together. But somehow I don’t really see social progress,” said Carron.
When polarization is made more powerful by the absence of common facts, Erzar and Carron’s observation is an important one: Without them, what’s the point in talking? If the goal isn’t to change minds, why bother?
Johnna Hyde remains optimistic because where people see division, she also sees common ground.
“If one side would look at the facts on the other side, a little more seriously, without just totally dismissing them, then we could address what we’re really concerned about,” she said. “What our real values are.”
Values, she said, like the shared desire to see Ely thrive.