A $1.5 million federal grant will help the city of Ely take the next step in its trailhead and west end development project. The city was awarded the money earlier this week, and it will be used to build the Ely Regional Trailhead Facility and complete another part of the project’s second phase.

“This will get the building done and the parking lot completed,” said Harold Langowski, the city’s clerk-treasurer and operations director.

Ely was successful in its pursuit for federal money through a highly-competitive process to tap into $240 million set aside for travel and tourism projects, in an effort overseen by the federal Economic Development Administration.

The program is funded by federal stimulus money.

“The Economic Development Administration plays an important role in supporting community-led economic development strategies designed to boost coronavirus recovery and response efforts,” said Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development Alejandra Y. Castillo, in a news release announcing the award.

“The Ely Regional Trailhead Facility will help enhance the region’s tourism industry and showcase local outdoor recreational opportunities.”

The federal money jumpstarts a project that was stalled by cost overruns. After state bonding money allowed for the completion of a first phase, and the award of another $1.5 million in state funds seemed to advance the second phase, the project was stopped in its tracks by a roughly $1.5 million shortfall. The federal money fills the gap and work could begin yet this year, according to Langowski. “The (federal grant) is being matched with the last round of state bonding money that we got over a year ago,” said Langwoski. “I haven’t seen the details of the EDA money but if we could we would like to get it out back for bids yet this year. It gives the contractor flexibility and whether it starts earlier or later it would be at their discretion.”

Langowski said the completion of a major improvement project on the Ely school campus could play a role in when the trailhead work begins. “We hope that by a year from now we’ll be having a ribbon cutting at the new facility,” said Langowski.

The visitor center is to be the centerpiece of a second phase that also includes further infrastructure work, and plans call for it to serve as a combination rest stop/information area for those coming to town.

Langowski said plans call for it to “operate as a rest stop,” with perhaps limited staffing based on the time of year or time of day. “The city will be maintaining it, cleaning it and we’ll have security but staffing will come from someone other than the city,” said Langowski, who identified both the Ely Tourism Bureau and U.S. Forest Service as potential entities who might provide limited staffing.

The trailhead and west end project has been identified as the top economic development priority by the city of Ely, combining several components, ranging from economic development and recreation, to new housing and support for year-round tourism. It’s part of an ongoing effort to make Ely a hub for trail users and in turn boost visitor traffic.

“Northern Minnesota has incredible natural beauty that attracts people from across the world,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D), whose support was sought by city officials as they pursued the federal money. “This funding is a true win-win, creating good-paying jobs and helping locals and visitors alike enjoy the outdoor recreation that Ely has to offer.”

U.S. Sen. Tina Smith (D) added “Minnesota is blessed with pristine natural landscapes and I’m always thrilled when we’re able to make them more accessible and inviting. This facility will also be a great addition to the Mesabi Trail, which showcases the area all the way from Grand Rapids to Ely.”

An initial phase, spurred in part by $1.3 million in state bonding support, included pavement and infrastructure. The trailhead serves as an entry point to the Mesabi Trail, David Dill Taconite Trail and Prospectors Loop ATV Trail.

A third phase of the project would require $2.5 million in additional funding and would clear the way for future development including proposed workforce housing, expansion at the Ely hospital campus and redevelopment of the old city garage.

The city also sought state bonding funds to fill the funding gap now closed by the federal award. State lawmakers would need to be called back into special session to approve bonding legislation, and prospects appear dim given current political divides between Democrats and Republicans in St. Paul.

Even if they do come to an agreement, Ely withdrew its request for the third phase of the trailhead project to focus solely on the second. Langowski said city officials would need to talk to lawmakers about what comes next should a special session come about. “Can we have that allocated toward another request?” said Langowski. “It is money being allocated to Ely. Or what about the school project, could the money go there? If by some miracle they do get a special session and the bonding bill moves forward we’ll have to talk to the state and say ‘you know, we got this funded.’”

The original article by Tom Coombe was published by The Ely Echo