Looking at 2016 from Ely’s rear view mirror
If nothing else, 2016 was a wild ride.
It sure seemed like a newsworthy year in our news room and compiling the annual “year in review” spread for this week’s edition, which can be found elsewhere in this section, only provided confirmation.
We find it hard to believe that a community our size anywhere in the state, or perhaps the nation for that matter, generates as much attention and coverage as Ely.
Copper-nickel mining. The Twin Metals debate, from the listening sessions to the unprecedented meeting between the city council and Gov. Mark Dayton to the 11th hour edict issued by the Obama Administration. Wind storms. Fires. Pillow Rock. Aerial spraying. A raid on one of our bait shots. The transformation of our downtown. The Facebook firestorm over an election-related post by one of our city council members.
You name it and it seemed to happen in Ely this year.
And people noticed. Locally, regionally and in some cases nationally.
Those of us who live here at the end of the road realize Ely is a special place. Others do too, given the attention we receive.
A feature on the TODAY Show, spreads in The New York Times and visits by journalists and television correspondents from around the nation don’t really take us by surprise. In other small towns, these would be once or twice a decade occurrences, if that.
It was an eventful and at times tumultuous 2016, but it’s time to look to a new year, one that begins midnight Sunday.
We have no doubt Ely will continue to generate headlines during the next 365 days.
And as we did in this space this time last year, it’s time to put a wish list together for 2017.
Santa has come and gone, but when it comes to news here are some things we’d like to be writing about this new year:
• New life for Twin Metals
The Obama Administration, on its way out the door, caved to the let’s stop everything crowd and slammed the brakes on the biggest economic development project Ely will ever see: the Twin Metals Minnesota copper-nickel mining initiative.
By pulling back long-held exploratory leases, the federal government has pulled the rug out from under Twin Metals, which has already invested over $400 million in the project, and it seems the feds have run afoul of the law and the existing processes for environmental review of mining projects.
We wish Twin Metals well in their legal fight, and join other project supporters in hoping the company can gain traction with the incoming Trump Administration.
Reversing Obama’s decision seems to be the quickest and easiest way to get this project - which has the support of our elected officials and a solid majority or northeastern Minnesota residents - back on track.
• More progress for PolyMet
The last 12 months appear to have resulted in significant steps forward for PolyMet, the region’s first copper-nickel mining project.
After more than a decade of review, PolyMet has applied for permits and seems to be well on its way to construction
The permanent jobs will bring more positions with good-size paychecks to the area, not to mention spin-off jobs and a construction period that’s sure to be an economic boon.
Even though the plant is about an hour away in Hoyt Lakes, progress for PolyMet is good for the area and is certain to benefit the Ely area.
While environmental interests are sure to oppose PolyMet as well, the project is further along than Twin Metals and even has some of that project’s foes - Gov. Mark Dayton for one - in its camp. Let 2017 be the year that PolyMet becomes, once and for all, a reality.
• Affordable broadband in Ely
Going hand-in-hand with the region’s mining economy are efforts to make Ely a more attractive place to do business, whether those are small firms looking to expand or relocate, businesses here that could grow, or the often overlooked market of those who can bring their jobs with them to Ely.
In many instances, that sort of economic expansion relies on affordable, reliable and fast internet service.
Ely is on the cusp of major progress in this regard with the broadband initiative coordinated by the Blandin Foundation.
The establishment of a downtown corridor fiber loop, and eventual expansion to the residential areas can only help in this regard and progress this year is an important step.
• Stability for the staples
Many of Ely’s core employers, entities and attractions had stable or even strong years, and we can only hope for more of the same.
Both the city of Ely and Ely School District are on firm financial ground, while enrollment climbed both at the school and at Vermilion Community College.
While K-12 population in Ely remains a fraction of what it was 20 years ago, the downward spiral has stopped and Ely voters ensured further stability by approving the renewal of an operating levy.
At VCC, prospects for the future have improved with the ongoing construction of a badly-needed student housing complex.
Across town, Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital has adjusted to a new normal, holding its own in an uncertain health care marketplace. We hope discussions with St. Luke’s, Essentia or both bear fruit and provide the hospital with new revenue streams and Ely residents more options for health care right here in town.
It’s gratifying to see the Minnesota Department of Revenue adding 10 jobs locally, yet there remain empty cubicles in the state office building and adjacent Sato building. Bringing even more good-paying state jobs to Ely should be at the top of any priority list the city and its economic developer come up with in 2017.
It was nice to report this year that attendance at the International Wolf Center had rebounded, even skyrocketed, after years of decline. Here’s hoping the museum has the resources it needs to stay “fresh” in a competitive marketplace and continues to bring visitors to Ely.
• Ely - Event hub of North
People like coming to Ely. That much we know.
It goes far beyond the Boundary Waters, which actually is declining in usage.
Many who would never paddle a canoe nonetheless love Ely and what it has to offer: its attractions, scenery, activities, festivals, lakes, trails and many events.
We said it on this page 52 weeks ago: there’s nothing like seeing Ely come alive during the busy summer season or during special events, with no vacancy signs at our motels and restaurants filled to capacity.
Let’s find a way to make that happen more often. Our festivals are top-notch. New events like Ely Marathon have taken hold. The impact of summer baseball tournaments and the occasional winter hockey tournament, or a winter weekend when snowmobile trails are at their peak can’t be understated.
Ely needs to continue to support these and other events that fill our town, and we look forward to a lineup that will grow this year.
Our wishes for 2017 look somewhat like they did last year, but some progress has been made.
Let’s see more of it and give those media outlets even more reason to talk about Ely - the best little small town in the world.