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Businesses struggle during mild winter

Area snowmobile trails have no snow, haven't been groomed this winter without white gold that normally paves a trail of winter tourism to Ely.

by Parker Loew

Above-average temperatures and the lack of ice and snow have kept many tourists and recreationists from visiting Ely this winter.

Though many businesses have tried to evolve to adopt new streams of income to make up for the lack of winter tourists, most have lost significant revenue.

“I don’t think we have seen over ten snowmobiles come to fuel up,” said Lisa Licari, manager at Clark Gas Station on the east side of town. “Last year, there were a lot of snowmobilers, and we had tons of business. This year, they have stayed home.”

Ely is usually a snowmobile destination in the wintertime, and many businesses have built their business model around a steady inflow of snowmobilers throughout the winter.

“Snowmobilers are huge for us. Dogsledding too,” said Mary Zupancich, manager of the Grand Ely Lodge. “Revenues each week, day after day, have been dropping significantly because there is no snow for people to enjoy these winter activities, so they don’t come to Ely.”

With the mild winter, the Grand Ely Lodge has tried many different techniques to get people to stay at the lodge, one of which is offering specials and discounts.

“You can’t predict what mother nature is going to do, unfortunately, but we have been offering big discount specials, ‘buy two, get one free’ type thing, just to get heads in beds,” said Zupancich.

Another source of income the Grand Ely Lodge looks to in the wintertime, which has helped this year, is hosting conventions and larger gatherings, but those only help so much.

Zupancich estimated they lost around 10-15% of traffic from last winter, one that was historically snowy.

“Last year, I would come in to work on a Saturday afternoon at two o’clock and there would be 50 to 60 sleds. One time I counted over 100,” said Bob Hendrickson, food and beverage manager at the Grand Ely Lodge. “This year, the most I saw was 15.”

Hendrickson said while the number of people staying in the lodge is noticeably less than in past years, food sales haven’t been impacted as much because of how few places in town are open during the winter, leaving the Grand Ely Lodge as one of the go-to places in town to grab food.

Eva Sebesta. executive director at Ely Chamber of Commerce, reiterated how the restaurants that have stayed open in Ely this winter have still had a decent amount of business because of how few are left, and because of one of the main restaurants in Babbitt closing.

“With the Junction closing over in Babbitt, a lot of their winter business has shifted over into our area,” said Sebesta.

While food sales may be stable, alcohol sales are a completely different story.

“It’s been alcohol, beer, and wine sales that have taken the biggest hits from the lack of snowmobile groups,” Hendrickson said.

Another go-to spot in town to grab drinks, and usually a snowmobiler’s haven, Samz Place, said while the lack of snowmobilers has been noticeable, they have adapted.

“Typically, in the wintertime, we thrive off the snowmobiler business. I’ve seen maybe five all year, but our sales haven’t gone down weirdly enough,” said Sarah Nyman, manager at Samz Place.

Nyman has tried to get creative with marketing to make up for the lack of inflow and traffic from snowmobilers.

“We’ve done a lot of specials and tried to get creative to get the locals to come back out because this winter, the town has died, and it’s been rough. Hopefully, it brings a better summer,” she said. “Come stop in at Samz Place and grab a drink.”

The lack of snow hasn’t been the only factor keeping tourists from Ely, as the warm temperature has created a thinner-than-usual ice pack on the area lakes.

“We’ve got about half as much ice as we typically do,” said owner of Arrowhead Outdoors Steven Renneberg. “We should have at least like two feet on the lake trout lakes and probably 30 inches on all the other lakes in the area. Right now we’re anywhere from eight to maybe 16 inches on most lakes.”

Even though the ice is thin on some lakes, Renneberg hasn’t heard of anyone going through the ice and said people have been good about not driving or going where they shouldn’t.

He also said that while the ice pack is lower than usual in Ely, it is still much better than most places in the Midwest, which has brought many who reside in iceless areas to northern Minnesota to fish.

“People are coming here because we have ice, a lot of places don’t,” said Renneberg. “They are coming from as far away as Ohio and even Indiana just because we have some ice on our lakes.”

Renneberg said people who have traveled here for fishing this year have typically been rewarded, as the fishing has been pretty good.

“People are catching some large northern pike out on Basswood and some really big lake trout on many different lakes,” he said.

The influx of people from other regions of the Midwest hasn’t completely made up for the small ice pack, however, and Renneberg said business is down around 10% from last year.

Tim Barton, trip guide outfitting manager at Piragis Northwoods Outfitting, said they have sent out around half as many winter camping trips as they have in the past few years.

“It’s not completely dead, but it’s way down compared to usual,” said Barton.

Piragis offers winter camping as more of a service than a money-making endeavor, but they are passionate about sending people out during the winter to experience the BWCA.

“Ice travel has actually been pretty good lately. We have been seeing a lot of people go out with boot spikes, which work the best in these conditions,” said Barton.

Barton said he hopes this year is a fluke and next year will be a more normal winter.

“I’m hoping it’s just a blip, and we’ll come right back next year,” he said.

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