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Too many misunderstand the true impact of tourism

Think of tourism as your community’s opportunity to make its case to each new visitor — that it could be a great place to live, find a job or start a business, and raise a family.

TOWER, Minn. — “You can’t raise a family on dock boy wages.” That was one of the comments at the recent public hearing on the Twin Metals lease renewal that has been bouncing around in my head for the past couple weeks.

Marshall Helmberger

In nine words, the comment encapsulates a prominent perspective in our area, namely that a “tourism” economy here in the North Country is inherently seasonal and does not support good-paying jobs on which you can raise a family or sustain a middle class life.

In a certain sense, I don’t disagree. Tourism, in the limited sense, is certainly seasonal in nature. And no, you can’t raise a family on dock boy wages.

But what we generally think of as “tourism” represents only a tiny fraction of the impact that bringing visitors to our region really entails. You can start to get an inkling of what I mean at one of those occasional sessions of the Tuesday Group in Ely, where new residents to the area turn out to introduce themselves.

Almost to a person or to a couple, the path that led them to make the Ely area their home started with a single visit to the area, most often to the Boundary Waters. One visit soon became many, which led to a determination to make the area their home.

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You can find many similar stories in communities throughout our region. The North Country isn’t for everyone, but for some it has an enormous emotional and spiritual draw and that makes living here a life goal for many people.

Some can’t make the shift until retirement, but many aren’t willing to wait that long. They make the move, whether they have gainful employment at the moment or not, with the recognition that they will do what it takes to make a living and create a lifestyle that feels right to them.

Such people have come to our area, by the thousands, and they are transforming the way our communities see the future.

I can relate, because like many residents who came from somewhere else, I didn’t move here for a job. In fact, in 1984, when my wife, Jodi, and I moved here to build our cabin in the woods, you couldn’t find a job if your life depended on it. The mines had shut down and the economy was in collapse, one of several severe mining downturns we’ve since witnessed in our 32 years in the North Country.

But, like so many, we moved here for the lifestyle, not the job opportunities, and we eventually found a way to make a living. Found a way to raise a family, send a kid to college, and put some money aside for a decent retirement.

Hundreds of other new residents have done the same, starting a wide range of home-based businesses, outfitting companies, real estate brokerages, successful retail establishments, construction firms, manufacturing operations, resorts, consultancies, educational facilities, wellness centers, restaurants, and on and on. They’ve created hundreds of jobs in doing so, most of which are year-round positions that pay a livable wage.

As folks in the area debate the future of their communities, and whether they’ll be reliant on tourism or mining, or something else, it is at least useful to understand what a tourism economy actually represents in the larger sense, and what it takes to sustain a community’s vitality for the long term.

What it comes down to, in the end, is quality of life. Think of tourism as your community’s opportunity to make its case to each new visitor — that it could be a great place to live, find a job or start a business, and raise a family. Sure, the influx of dollars spent by visitors makes a big difference, but the ultimate goal of a tourism economy in small rural communities should be to strengthen our human capital by enticing new people, with new ideas, creativity, and energy, to invest, stay, and build a stronger community and local economy.

When we fail to understand, or intentionally ignore, such objectives, we undermine our own future.

I recognize that we have differing visions of quality of life. For some, it’s purely measured in the stuff we can buy, which means it is ultimately measured by the size of our paycheck. But for many, if not most, people, the paycheck is only one factor, and usually not even that close to the top of their list when it comes to life quality.

A recent essay, “Responsible Tourism: How to Preserve and Revitalize the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg,” by Edward McMahon, a Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., provides some valuable insights into how we can avoid making mistakes that undermine quality of life and make our communities less than inviting to visitors and prospective new residents.

Some of the recommendations he offers, include:

• Preserve and restore historic buildings, neighborhoods and landscapes — these are what make our communities unique. Communities that don’t preserve their history, or encourage development that’s not in keeping with the community’s character (think chain stores and restaurants), lose their cultural memory and their soul. There are plenty of communities that have been swallowed up by strip development, big box stores and fast food chains, and there is absolutely no reason for anyone to ever venture out of their way to such places, since they all look the same. Of course, if it’s your natural environment that brings folks to town, as is the case here in the North Country, then protecting that asset is essential to the future.

• Protect your gateway — because first impressions matter. “Many communities have gotten used to ugliness, accepting it as inevitable to progress,” writes McMahon. “More enlightened communities recognize that community appearance is important. It affects a community’s image and its economic well-being. I’ll never forget how charmed I was on my first visit to New Market, Virginia – a Norman Rockwell sort of town in the Shenandoah Valley. Nor will I forget how disappointed I was on a later visit to find giant fast food and gas stations’ signs towering over the town’s historic buildings, obliterating the scenery and diminishing the town’s appeal as a tourist destination.”

• Enhance the journey — because tourism is the sum total of the travel experience. “There are many great destinations in America; however, there are very few great journeys left,” writes McMahon. “Except for a few special roads, like the Blue Ridge Parkway, or the Natchez Trace, driving along a typical American highway can be a profoundly depressing experience.”

Perhaps because of our region’s mining and logging past, many area residents, and certainly our local governments, pay little attention to aesthetics. We see this all the time on our highways, where the concept of a scenic byway is virtually shunned. Many people, myself included, used to love the once-scenic drive between Tower and Ely. These days they try not to look in order to ward off depression. Don’t think visitors to the area don’t see the changes as well.

Unfortunately, we design all our roads here with the mindset of an extractive economy, where the only consideration is the fastest and most efficient transport of workers to the mill and whatever resource we happen to be shipping out at the moment. We run giant mowers down the roadsides, slicing off trees and shrubs, leaving unsightly debris and dangerously sheared spikes in their wake.

This doesn’t happen in most other places, because most people appreciate the value of scenery and recognize that, for most of us, it matters to our sense of well-being. Scenic roadways are an asset, and not just for visitors, and we do harm to our region when we fail to protect them.

There’s plenty here to ponder for a while. When we think about tourism, we need to recognize that its potential impacts go far beyond our traditional definitions and how tourism in the larger sense can successfully build sustainable and economically diverse communities. In other words, how tourism can do much more than provide summer wages for dock boys.

Marshall Helmberger is the publisher of The Timberjay newspapers (including the Ely Timberjay, Tower-Soudan Timberjay and Cook-Orr Timberjay), where this commentary originally appeared. It is republished with permission.

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