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Updates from Lacey of Boundary Waters Connect

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

I recently heard someone call Ely “the biggest small town you’ll find.” (Shout out to my new friend Nick Dunnom!). I couldn’t agree more.

What other town of its size regularly convenes 70+ neighbors to learn something new from local, regional, and national experts on a variety of topics?? This is my not-so-subtle shout out to Tuesday Group – a Boundary Waters Connect program. Together we’ve learned from loon experts, wolf experts, moose experts, tap dancers, authors of renown, nonprofit leaders – and more!

The fact that Ely is a tourist destination has allowed it to attract an impressive fanbase of Ely enthusiasts. Did you know that the What’s Up Ely Facebook group has 20.2k followers (and counting!)? Mind you, the population of Ely is less than 3,500. This group is essentially a very engaged Ely fan club of folks from all around the country.

You know, when I told my Saint Paul network that Eric and I would be moving to Ely, there were a few skeptics who openly questioned how I could possibly enjoy life at the end of the road. They wondered, how can someone who loves people and art and music and food as much as I do, how can someone like that move to a rural place?

When I think about that I giggle, reflecting fondly on some of my favorite memories of the year thus far:

  • Eating delicious, locally made Thai mango sticky rice while picnicking with friends at Whiteside Park.

  • Savoring tacos made with traditionally prepared nixta heirloom corn tortillas at The Chocolate Moose.

  • Learning traditional Anishinaabe ways to process sap from sugar maples.

  • Reveling in the talents of the Broadway in the Boundary Waters summer residency cast from around the country, sitting through three of the highest quality and most intimate theater productions I’ve ever experienced.

  • Attending live music events featuring a diverse range of genres on the deck at Zaverl’s, the outdoor amphitheater at Hidden Valley, and Ely’s Historic State Theater.

  • Watching the awestruck as the aurora danced over Shagawa Lake, listening to wolves howl in the distance, picking blueberries for wild blueberry pie, and observing an eaglet in its nest.

I have never once looked back since moving to Ely. This rich community sustains me in ways the city did not. My personal experience affirms the research. Rural communities with natural amenities are attracting a “brain gain” of folks in their 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s looking to cultivate a sense of belonging and attachment to a place.

As such, Boundary Waters Connect considers new resident recruitment and retention the north star of our strategy for fostering further Wilderness-edge economic growth.

Our Hello Neighbor programs and services for new residents include free socials designed to help new residents interact meaningfully with established residents. We understand that actively engaging in inclusion work and celebrating diversity is essential to a healthy community.

I have had the honor of meeting many members of this current new wave of new Elyites. They include medical professionals like pharmacists, nurses, and cardiac rehab specialists; youth educators such as high school teachers and family services coordinators; professional musicians and theater artists; and, of course, wilderness guides.

If you’ve been around town lately, you have seen – you have felt – the community and economic renaissance that is underway; the End of the Road entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well. Potluck Kitchenware is under new ownership, and our new soft goods repair shop, Mayhem Mending, recently expanded into a building on Sheridan Street. Three Jewels Pottery and the Mantel House coffeeshop are slated to open next spring. The Piragis Boathouse celebrated its grand opening this year, and Ely Outfitting Company is expanding to include its new “expedition room” – just to name a few examples.

We (it’s nice to realize I feel so rooted as to truly consider myself part of the “we” that is Ely) are not only entrepreneurial, we are also fiercely independent. I may not own a business, but it pleases me greatly to be able to shop at independently owned mom-and-pop shops and to patronize Ely's [Independent] Film Festival.

Another example of the local independent spirit: an informal and diverse group of community members are engaging in collective action to identify innovative solutions to common problems related to housing and persistent interest in a dog park. We seek to support our elected officials and actively participate in local governance and local nonprofit leadership. When I look around at my peers I see that we are all about sharing our talents for the benefit of the community.

This winter Boundary Waters Connect hosted a reading and discussion group called Long-Form. Participants read a selection of book chapters on topics ranging from existentialism to Anishinaabe culture, from how to cultivate a sense of belonging in a new town to innovative practices for rural economic development. We got together for three hours twice a month to engage in long-form discussion about what we read, and how we can better serve our neighbors. We are serious about building coalitions and healing social divides to solve problems.

I am proud to be a part of this movement for independent community and economic growth on the edge of the Wilderness, and I hope you are proud of yourselves for the same reason. This values-based work is possible thanks to the generous financial supporters of Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, as well as the local volunteers who help facilitate our Hello Neighbor services, Tuesday Group programming, and all other Boundary Waters Connect efforts.

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