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EDITORIAL: Labor shortage leaves diners hungry

Ask anyone who’s tried to eat out in Ely on a Monday night, or during the weekend, or the poor local restaurant server who brought food to a baseball team gathering of 30 people at a local establishment just last weekend.

Without a doubt, Ely is facing a shortage of restaurants.

The issue has come up at the city council table, at informal gatherings and was well chronicled in a recent news report in this publication.

Hours are shorter. Nearly all of our eating establishments are closed a day or more each week and there are fewer establishments overall.

A once popular eatery now sits vacant, with a for sale sign outside its doors, on a prime piece of real estate at the corner of Sheridan Street and Second Avenue East.

Why does it matter?

Should anyone care? If there’s really a need why is a shuttered restaurant up for sale?

All are legitimate questions indeed, yet it’s becoming apparent that the shortage of retail eating opportunities in Ely is real and a cause for concern.

One reason is obvious. Ely continues to count on and rely on visitor traffic for a significant portion of our local economy.

We remain a vacation destination, for thousands who enjoy the nearby wilderness and our area lakes as well as the natural beauty of the surrounding area.

The crowded streets show that the clientele and what they are looking for are changing.

While there are still individuals and groups who come into town, perhaps stop for a bite to eat and then head into the woods for a week, it’s clear a growing number are here for a perhaps more typical vacation.

Instead of a week in a tent, they may opt for a day or two on the lake and choose a more extended stay at a hotel, resort or an AirBnB or VRBO. Perhaps Ely is part of a loop that also includes a couple of days on the North Shore.

These are vacationers who head into or stay in town, want a dinner out with the kids after their visit the Wolf Center or Bear Center, or simply want lunch after walking the streets and checking out the shops.

Not to mention six or seven weekends a year there are hundreds in town not to fish or canoe, but to play or watch one of the baseball tournaments going on at Veterans Memorial Field. Just last weekend there were 10 teams and several hundred visitors from as far away as Roseau, the Twin Cities and Viroqua (Wisc.), all needing to be fed.

The issue extends to Ely’s so-called shoulder and off-seasons. Events like the Ely Marathon, the WolfTrack Classic and the Jake Forsman Burnout Competition bring people to town and make it difficult to find an open table for dinner.

During the summer Ely is a vacation destination and for a good chunk of the year the community is a weekend destination. A vibrant retail dining market with options and longer hours isn’t an extra. It’s a must have.

A tight labor market has been the cause of many of the issues and anecdotal reports say things haven’t got much better, even as the Covid-19 pandemic fades further and further away.

The comments from business owners in our recent report make it clear that finding and retaining enough help are the biggest obstacles.

Just down the road in Babbitt a restaurant has closed for one reason: lack of available employees. Even offering a $55,000 wage for a cook, the owner has been unable to get enough help.

It’s a problem in search of a solution and we wish we could wave a magic wand or come up with the silver bullet solution.

About all we can offer at this point is that it’s gratifying to see that an assortment of parties - from business owners to economic development and government officials - recognize that there’s a problem. It’s a good first step toward fixing it.

In the meantime, you might want to make sure you have reservations before heading out to eat.

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