At the Beginning of the Road

July 29, 1996

Ely is probably one of the most ideal places to live.  In many ways it is a Nordic Garden of Eden.  Granted, we scrap about the BWCAW every two years during the elections, but otherwise our family fights are minimal.

Of course, our Eden does have its Achilles heel. . . namely jobs and children.  In the last two years ther has been a constant flow of people who wished to escape the rat race of the big cities.  The patron saint of this movement is Dorothy Molter.  She enjoyed the solitude of the wilderness, her animal friends and thousands of summer visitors with stars in their eyes.

Steve Piragis is probably the most successful of the newer breed of transplant entrepreneurs.  In order to be able to live in Ely he started a business.  He has worked hard over the last 20 years.  The results are a retail and catalog company that takes advantage of our wilderness beauty.  His products have brought people closer to their organic roots, allowing them to live in the woods and realize Nature has an important place in their understanding of their own lives.  Man does not live by skyscraper alone.  

There are many others who have moved to Ely and opened a new businesses.  These have provided incomes that have allowed their owners to become independent of the big cities.  Some do quite well, some work many hours for a minimum wage.  All have helped create jobs in Ely, though sadly, most are minimum wage jobs.  The Ely public is thankful for all new jobs, but at the same time a constant lament is that we need higher paying jobs.  The kind of jobs that allow folks to buy homes and start families. 

This bring me to the second public lament.  Namely, the outcry to save our Ely schools from further reductions.  Every year about four or five fewer kids attend Ely schools than the year before.  The result is that we are faced with firing some great teachers in the coming years to make ends meet.  Our Ely schools kick butt when it comes to teaching the 3 Rís.  Discipline and respect are also on the curriculum, whereas the schools in Minneapolis are a jungle of bureaucrats, drugs, sex and violence.  It is a crime our school is dying from lack of students. 

The recent influx of new entrepreneurs are those who are mostly older with either children who have left the nest or no children at all.  So they have not changed the decline in school population.

Business-wise Ely has gone about as far as it can go.  Only so many visitors come to Ely.  To increase the number is a slow process.  We will find it hard to support all the new restaurants that are coming on line during the off season.  So many jobs are three-month jobs.  Our local market already has enough gift shops and restaurants.  New destinations, such as the proposed Bear Center would help immensely.  Developments like the Wolf Center and Bear Center do help create high paying jobs, but where or how can we create high paying jobs?  How can we attract jobs that will allow people to afford two of the great goals of life Ė home and children?

When y family moved up in 1994, our goal was to buy a business and thereby earn a living.  That did not work out, but we were committed to leaving the big city.  The solution that has evolved for me has been to work in the big city and live in Ely.  I am a virtual employee.  Actually, I have two jobs.  Both are part timeand both allow me a great deal of personal choice and freedom.  For over two years I have worked for one of the Rangeís biggest radio stations.  The last time I was at the station was December 21, 1995.  Since this late winter, I joined the staff at the paper.  I donít even know where they keep the press.  I have no office space allotted to me at either business.  Over half the employees at the radio station do not know what I look like. 

Yet I do labor away.  Sometimes well past midnight.  I work on the latest computer with the latest software.  I use email and fax from both a computer and a fax machine.  In short, my home office is like many offices found in companies like General Mills.  The only difference is that I work out of my home.  If I worked full time I have no doubt my income would approach $40,000 a year.  In Ely, that is a sum that would allow hearth and children.  My main employer is over 60 miles away.  It just as well could be 600 or 6,000 miles.

Ely would not have to pursue a near hopeless policy of attracting new industry.  Some people hope for light manufacturing to bring high paying jobs to Ely.  Why would anyone want to pay for transporting supplies up to Ely and then pay to transport product back to the market place?  Many suburbs are flush with cash and give business free land and buildings.  However, thanks to tools like phone, fax, computer and Internet we can even the playing field.

My recommendation is that we should compete for the restive, dissatisfied technology workers and invite them to create information and wealth in a land of clean air, breathtaking winters and to live in a community that truly is a community.  This would stabilize our economy, our school and raise incomes.

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