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Vibrant theater, annual film festival give Ely a badly-needed boost

Sheridan Street, at least the area around Ely’s Historic State Theater, provided both an unfamiliar and welcome sight for four straight days last week.

It really didn’t matter if it was Thursday night, Friday afternoon or the bulk of the day on Saturday, not to mention Sunday afternoon.

Parking spots were at a premium and cars were lined up blocks away - with nearly all belonging to those who were attending the Ely Film Festival.

The second annual event was bigger than the first, attracting sellout gatherings - including one emceed by the Echo’s Nick Wognum - during the evening

Even the daytime hours brought people into the building for showings both in the large theater and the cozy smaller room where movies are also shown - and can be watched from plush seats.

It clearly wasn’t a typical Saturday in Ely last weekend when at noon, about 70 people gathered for a revealing discussion about diversity and the issues those of color face in our town, along with movies in both of the theater’s main rooms.

If someone had opened their eyes for the first time after a long slumber and turned up in the theater lobby on Saturday afternoon, they might have a hard time believing they were in a tiny town in the northeastern part of Minnesota. Instead it had the feel of a busy venue in an urban area.

In just two years, the Ely Film Festival has not only caught on -but it has caught fire.

It was clear that the assortment of longer movies and short films attracted a wide-ranging audience, bringing local residents and college students to the facility and attracting curious movie-goers from the Range and Duluth and far beyond.

Film festivals have an audience of their own and the Ely event attracted people who came from the Twin Cities, and even the film-haven of Los Angeles, for the event.

Like it or not, it’s clear that until more can be done on the economic development front, a significant portion of the local economy depends on the successes of our many events.

And that’s not just the obvious ones, such as the well-established Blueberry/Art, Harvest Moon, the Fun Run and Ely Winter festivals and the numerous baseball tournaments held here every summer, but also still fledgling events such as the Ely Marathon, Jake Forsman Burnout and Car Show and now the Ely Film Festival.

Organizer Jacob White started with a concept a couple of years back and it has quickly grown to far beyond that - and we expect that the Ely Film Festival will build on its present successes and maybe even grow in 2025 and beyond.

That wouldn’t be possible without the facility where the festival takes place.

A decade-and-a-half ago, the theater was crumbling and patrons all but needed an umbrella because of a leaky roof. A decade ago, the building was closed entirely.

Developers John and Tanner Ott saw opportunity in the eyesore, purchased the building and got some outside help along the way in renovating the building.

We remember the Blueberry Saturday night a few years back when the theater lights went back on for the first time, and a nonprofit group has taken the ball and run with it - turning the theater into a home for first-run movies, concerts, events and yes, the Ely Film Festival.

In an era when the community is dealing with restaurant closures, an uncertain economy and many nights when downtown resembles a ghost town, the theater is helping to turn the tide.

We’re hoping that there are many more days in the future where downtown parking spots are very hard to find, just as they were during the film festival.

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