Originally Published in the Timber Jay by Keith Vandervort February 28, 2019

EEDA West End DevelopmentELY – Growth and expansion for the city’s west end development took top billing in the recent Ely Economic Development Authority review of priorities for 2019.

With actual funding becoming a real possibility, the recreational trailhead project is finally coming into sharper focus. At the same time, the Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital is exploring facility expansion on their campus and studying a partnership and collaboration with health and wellness partners like the Ely Regional Community Complex and the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities. Ely Area Ambulance Service is also looking at building a new garage and facility in collaboration with EBCH.

Meanwhile, the city’s Housing Rehabilitation Authority is considering various vacant spaces nearby to add more workforce housing.

The planned extension of Pattison Street to the west, which would connect it to a new Fifth Avenue West between Hwy 169 and the hospital would tie the project together with the needed infrastructure to make the growth a reality.

In discussing the priority list, economic advisor John Fedo told the members of the authority, who also serve as city council members, that many items on past lists have been crossed off the list with successful completion.

The multi-trail facility and parking area at the west entrance to the city will bring together the Mesabi Trail, the Taconite Trail, and the new ATV trail, known as the Prospectors Loop, which will connect Ely, Babbitt, Lake Vermilion and the North Shore.

“The trailhead will come together with the hospital’s new construction and expansion,” Fedo said, “and the other development in this district. There is a funding and financing need for these various projects.”

West end developments will all tie into each other, according to Clerk-Treasurer Harold Langowski. “It is kind of one big project now,” he said. “If you tie in housing and the ambulance garage and all these other items, that all ties in together. We are looking at how development in that entire area will be assisted by the EEDA.”

Advancing a broadband project in the downtown area was brought up to No. 2 on the priority list. “Based on all the action we have taken, and the ongoing financing we are going after, we are nearing the possibility of developing a budget,” he said. “We are hopeful that within the next 30 to 60 days we will have a request in to a funding partner to make that happen.”

Fedo noted that city officials are working on their own to get the initial project done. ‘We have this proposed loop in the downtown business district. We think we have the IRRRB to help with funding now. To try to apply for state funding, right now the language really rules us out, so our ability to have a shovel-ready project is going to be difficult. That doesn’t mean we can’t go after additional state funds, pending a change in legislation.”

Fedo noted that by the legislative definition, the city has broadband service available, even though the project was stopped at the edge of town when Lake County’s Lake Connections project ran out of money in 2017.

St. Louis County commissioners have been reluctant to enter into broadband funding of any kind, despite encouragement from the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, according to EEDA member Paul Kess.

Fedo added, “Under the whole concept of (high-speed) fiber needs in the city of Ely, there are a number of areas that we need to get into yet. If we can accomplish the downtown loop as proposed, that gets us to the point where we have levers to what else we want to accomplish in the next six to 12 months.”

Langowski said many broadband “solutions” are being led by cooperatives in many Minnesota communities as well as county governments. “I know that RAMS is working very hard with St. Louis County on how they can have more of a leadership role in this. I’ve seen for myself how reluctant they are. I think it is up to us to prove to them how we can make it happen,” he said.”

A second round of $50,000 in funding from the Blandin Foundation early this year will help in the continuation of the city of Ely’s broadband projects. “In early spring, we hope to have several more marketing and business development workshops,” Langowsk said. “Media marketing consultations will again be part of the training. “Those are worth as much as $1,500 each.”

Fedo said completion of the downtown high-speed fiber loop is an important part of the city’s economic development. “We need service that is consistent and dependable and available at an affordable cost,” he said. “Those things help us to market the expansion and growth of the downtown area.”

EEDA member Albert Forsman added that the third item on the priority list should include the continuation of support to local business creation and expansion. That includes continued advocacy for local business assistance through a variety of financing programs, locally-available and through regional organizations and state programs.

EEDA members will revisit the 2019 priority list at the next meeting on March 12.