Ely’s restaurant dilemma
by Tom Coombe
As Ely council members addressed economic development issues Tuesday night, mayor Heidi Omerza pulled no punches and said it was time to address “the elephant in the room” - the community’s rapidly shrinking number of restaurants.
“What I keep thinking about is we keep talking about bringing more and more people to Ely, which is awesome, which I think we need, but where are they going to eat?” Omerza asked during the monthly Ely Economic Development Authority meeting. “I am starting to get very concerned about the restaurant situation in Ely.”
Two Ely restaurants - the Ely Steakhouse and Sir G’s - have closed in the last two months.
A third, Rockwood, first scaled back its food operations during the Covid-19 pandemic and didn’t open at all in 2023 while currently being listed for sale.
Other eating establishments are either open seasonally or are closed one or more days per week.
Even during the peak summer season, few eating establishments offered meals past 8 p.m. and breakfast options were scarce.
While restaurant owners have shied away from speaking publicly about the closures, both a tight labor market and a lack of affordable housing have been identified as some of the reasons for the clear scaling back of eating options in Ely - at least in comparison to five or 10 years ago.
Omerza addressed the issue at the EEDA meeting and while stopping short of calling for city action, she brought it to the table and raised awareness.
“We’re at a point now, where if restaurants want J1 (foreign) workers, now is the time to act,” she said.
“We have some restaurant buildings that are obviously not reopening and for sale. I understand that we as an EDA are not in the restaurant business, but I think we have to start thinking about some creative ways.”
She added “we do have some restaurants in Ely that are success stories. We need to figure out a way to highlight that.”
Omerza said that eating options have to be considered as local groups promote events and tourism officials work to bring traffic to town.
“We’re bringing in all these people to Ely so we need to figure out a way to open these restaurants and fill them with employees who know how to run a restaurant,” said Omerza.
Council member Paul Kess responded that the mayor’s remarks were “well said” and member Al Forsman said he agreed.
Forsman said he believed the city was taking some steps, and that by looking to develop more affordable housing, the city was also addressing the restaurant dilemma.
“We’re also trying to get good well paying jobs to get families up here and maybe there’s a family member looking for a second income at a restaurant,” said Forsman. “These are things we’re trying to do.”
Forsman said “I can’t tell you how many people are disappointed” by the closing of the Ely Steakhouse,” and that dining there “was part of their ritual in coming up here.”
“When people go on vacation, one of the most important things they look for is what’s their favorite restaurant,” said Forsman. “We have some very good restaurants that are open, but we’d like to have other ones there to complement them.”
The labor shortage has spanned several tourist seasons, while visitor traffic didn’t slow and in some cases increased during the pandemic.
The recent restaurant closures have triggered concerns given expectations that 2024 will be a busy summer in town, with not only the usual slate of events but the Ely High School All-Class Reunion, which will encompass two weekends around the Fourth of July.