December 16, 2004

At the Beginning of the Road

By Dane Sorensen


With the approaching New Year, Ely is slated to have a new mayor and a newer looking city council. The challenges of 2005 will be much the same as 2004. Except Ely 2005 will be smaller than Ely 2004. Every year fewer people live in the city. Every year we see the Ely School District lose another 10 to 20 kids. Every year we see the number of jobs declining.

Not that Ely has not tried to create growth. In the last ten years there have been some successes. The Grand Ely Lodge and the marginal growth in the Industrial Park have added a few jobs, but not enough to offset what was lost in other businesses. The two pillars of employment in St. Louis County have always been logging and mining. Each has seen vast improvements in productivity. Trees aren't cut down with chain saws; they are now harvested by machines. The trucks for mining get bigger every year it seems. As an industry, mining and logging are producing just as much product, but the jobs behind this production continue to decline. To look for more jobs from these industries is a waste of time.

Tourism has helped Ely, but I don't think it is a growth industry for the town. Unless we create more things to see and do, Ely is basically a one to three day visit. It would help by opening a museum at the old Chandler Mine. Thousands of dollars have been spent to preserve some of the buildings, but the project is going nowhere. However, even if a mining and local history museum were to open, it would create very few jobs.

We need to attract new business. Of course, every town on the Range says that. We lack infrastructure to accomplish growth. No railroads, no 4-lane highway, no scheduled flights. We are a remote town on the edge of a lot of restricted land. Behind every tree is an environmental wacko making sure nothing changes. What are our options?

About 97% of my income comes from the Internet. Just as Ely tourist businesses do, our business brings money into Ely. The Internet is still growing by leaps and bounds. Since the Stock Crash a lot of the loopy Internet ideas have fallen. However, many solid businesses like eBay and are making money. A lot of small businesses on the Internet are also doing very well. Maybe not making billions upon billions, but they can make a good living. I recently wanted to buy some old fashioned C7 size twinkle Christmas lights. I could not find them locally. It took less than ten minutes to find a Christmas store on the net selling the old twinkle style C7 bulbs. Free shipping to boot. To me it made no difference where that Christmas store was, because it was right in my living room. Ely needs to fight back by offering goods and services just like that Christmas store. Ely needs more people running businesses on the Internet. The trick is how to promote Ely as a High Tech Mecca?

There are businesses in Ely that are creating sales off the Internet. Piragis, Wintergreen and others have had a presence for years. We need to attract more Internet based businesses.

I believe the number one way Ely could grow is by becoming one of the first small towns to offer WiFi everywhere in town. WiFi is the latest way to surf the Net at speeds 20-40 times faster than old-fashioned 56K dialup. WiFi uses wireless technology, which allows your Computer or PDA to connect to the Internet. In the case of a Notebook computer or PDA you can wander around and do work. Tasks such as Inventory become easy when Mohammed can go to the mountain. WiFi can free you from a desk.

The City of Philadelphia is planning a citywide system. The honor of having a working citywide system goes to Grand Haven, Michigan. Population 12,000. The smart people of Grand Haven realize it will be a magnet for a lot of things. Some hotels offer their visitors free service. Those who depend on a computer for their livelihood now find they can bring their notebook computers to the park and work while watching a softball game.

Colleges and some high schools have gone WiFi, which allow students to use notebook computers in class where the teacher can give out web addresses showing charts, illustrations, video, audio or texts as part of a virtual textbook. Students sick at home can see and hear their class via WiFi web cam broadcasting. Students can do their online homework while Mommy drives them to their Hockey Game. During the game, Mommy can cheer little Johnny and catch up on her work and answer emails.

If Ely had such a system it could attract a lot of tourists who could stay longer. Call it a working vacation where you can work 9 to 5 under the shade of a tree and go fishing the rest of the day. Even if only 5% of the tourists coming to Ely stay an extra 5 days by combining work and vacation, the impact in tourist dollars would be huge.

Having recently joined the broadband crowd, I can tell you what a joy it is to not have to wait 45 seconds for a web page to download. It is a pleasure to download a software upgrade in ten seconds instead of 40 minutes. Things like web phones or video conferencing are now possible. WiFi is great and Ely should consider it a tool for economic growth. I can't imagine all the publicity we would get if we had a FREE system. Subsidizing a WiFi system would be a lot smarter than subsidizing Cable TV local access.

Grand Haven is mentioned in over 1.6 million pages according to Google. Ely is mentioned in a little over 300,000 and much of that is our sister cities of Ely, Nevada and Ely, UK.

My hope is that the city leaders will make it a New Year's Resolution to leap frog into the 21st Century by making Ely the first Free WiFi city in the USA. The last time we had a chance for city wide high speed Internet service was when the city renegotiated a cable contract. With complete lack of foresight we did not even ask for cable modems. Many other Range cities have high speed via cable modems. We need to catch up and surpass them in order to stop this slow bleeding of population. We need to invest in attracting new business.

Every new business would represent at least one new family in Ely. Every new business would pull dollars from the outside to Ely. We need to out do Grand Haven and every other competing town in the USA.


     Return to Index of Beginning of the Road Column