AURORA — Headlines seen in the Mesabi Daily News over the years, dating back about two decades, document the sometimes-turbulent progress of PolyMet. As early up and downs of the NorthMet project mirrored the cyclical mining industry, few thought it would take this long to get to this point.
What has never been turbulent is the support PolyMet has received from Iron Rangers who depend on mining jobs to support their families. Now, as the reality of the PolyMet project draws even closer, opinions and fortunes on the East Range are proving to be ever optimistic.
“We are being rewarded for extreme patience,” commented Aurora City Councilor Douglas Gregor. “I would not have been as enthusiastic if the agencies hadn’t done what they have … We have a highly environmentally regulated state which has encouraged the mining companies to become environmentally conscious. With both environmental consciousness and the economic stimulation, this project is incredible.”
Just a few years ago Aurora found itself on the wrong side of economic development. The city lost its grocery store, Zup’s, and the Aurora Drug & Variety store, both downtown mainstays. Visitors to the city’s food shelf were up after the stores shuddered, gaining 3-5 families and serving about 400 people a week in aftermath.
Doom and gloom wasn’t always the Aurora story though. When LTV Mining called the East Range home, it was abuzz. At its peak in the 1970s, the mine employed more than 3,000 workers and produced more than 312 million tons of taconite pellets since it began operations in 1957. The East Range boomed so much that LTV helped give birth to the city of Hoyt Lakes, six miles south of the plant.
Operations at LTV closed in 2001, costing the area 1,400 living-wage jobs, as the company struggled to produce quality pellets at a competitive cost. Now, there’s more taillights leaving the region every morning for work than coming in.
“It’s been well-documented the losses this community has endured since the closing of LTV,” said Aurora Mayor David Lislegard. Lislegard was among those 1,400 people who lost their job in 2001, and has since become a leading Range-wide voice in advocating for mining alongside a clean environment. “But with PolyMet making the final turn and heading down the home stretch, we see things getting much brighter on the East Range.”
In 2005, PolyMet purchased the former LTV plant near Hoyt Lakes with plans for an open pit copper-nickel mine near Babbitt. As the reality of PolyMet grows closer, ripples of excited can be felt across the Range with some of the biggest waves seen on main streets.
“There are several new investments being made in the city of Aurora and that is truly exciting,” said Lislegard, referencing a new coffee shop, realtor and construction company, among others.
After graduating from Aurora in 1988, moving away for a few years, Erika Bradach moved home to take over the family business, Bradach Lumber. The business, which was started by her grandparents, has been open in Aurora since 1945. With the economic tidal wave, the family had to make the decision to merge their hardware store with the lumberyard.
“At one time there used to be two hardware stores and two lumberyards in Aurora,” said Bradach. “We (my sister, Rita Taylor; husband, Stuart Blee and myself) felt with the economic downturn and Menards moving to Virginia, it was necessary to consolidate the stores.”
After the merger of their businesses, the Bradach family retained ownership of the building that had held the hardware store, and it was rented out and/or stood empty.
“The roof needed repairs and with that kind of investment, we felt we needed to try and generate some income,” she said.
With the decision to conduct the repairs, Bradach opened The Hive, a coffee shop and bakehouse, in the building. The extra space was offered to Kasie Saumer for her dance studio, Legacy Studio of Dance, and now the two are faces of Aurora’ business revival.
“We are not a bakery, but we bake everything we serve from scratch — homemade breads, bagels, cupcakes, cookies, muffins, cakes. We roast all of our coffee beans here too,” Bradach said. “We have the freshest coffee around. We also have breakfast sandwiches, sandwiches, salads and homemade soups. Everything is made fresh in-house.”
Their specialty coffee can be purchased on-site as well as at Bradach Lumber and Natural Harvest Co-op. The Hive also offers boxed lunch specials for groups and businesses.
“Currently we employ 13 part-time employees.” she added.
Saumer is the owner and operator of Legacy Studio of Dance, which is located inside The Hive’s building.
“The dance studio was originally in Biwabik, but the space was too small for what I wanted to offer to my dancers, so when Erika and Rita came to me with the opportunity to have a larger space, I jumped at the chance,” Saumer said. “I generally try to stay out of politics at the studio, but PolyMet definitely has an impact on the studio and the dance families, keeping jobs and families in the area ... It’s my goal to offer the quality of dance and opportunities you would find in big cities, to my dancers in our small town.”
Legacy Studio of Dance is open 5 days a week. The Hive is open seven days a week and the friendly atmosphere has drawn in more customers.
“I’d like to think we have increased the traffic through our town,” said Bradach. “Not only with The Hive but also having the dance studio here.”
Bradach said that although they support the PolyMet project 100 percent, it did not affect their decision to open The Hive.
“We look forward to their project getting going but we would have done this regardless,” she said. “We recognize that mining sustains us and since the closing of LTV, we have seen and felt the effects.”
Around every hive there is bound to bee a buzz.
“The buzz of PolyMet has honestly started to dwindle,” said Bradach. “I think people still support it, but we are battle fatigued.”
That battle fatigue will happen after almost 20 years. The project’s first environmental efforts were sent back to the drawing board by the state. And since the company has cleared those hurdles, lawsuits over permits, the land exchange and other aspects of the project have at times flooded local courts.
All that, without mentioning the numerous public hearings held on the Range, Duluth and St. Paul concerning the project and the merits of a permit or government agency’s decision. Earlier this month, two more were held in Aurora and Duluth over the permit to mine, considered to be among the final pieces of the company’s puzzle to begin construction.
Admittedly fatigued on the topic themselves, Joyce Banttari and Mary Mulari sat at a table that looked out onto the street as they discussed PolyMet. They reminisced of the businesses that once filled their main street.
“I yearn for that boom, again,” said Banttari.
“Losing the grocery store and drug store were huge losses,” added Mulari, who said it was more than inconvenient but a true loss to the community. She said the coming of PolyMet is something to look forward to.
“The general atmosphere is positive,” said the former Aurora small business owner. “This is a sign of hopefulness. We aren’t dead.”
Banttari, a former librarian, agreed.
“This shows the strength of the community, the spirit of the residents that we can continue on, are willing to make hard decisions and invest,” she said. “The soul of our community cannot be extinguished.”
When asked how it feels to be this close to PolyMet opening, Banttari added it’s “Like the coming of spring!”
On her break from waitressing at The Hive, Leah Panyan sat in a comfortable chair next to a coffee table.
“My whole family has worked in the mines,” said the college student. Ticking off her fingers listing both parents, brother, uncle and grandfather. “Besides mining there is not much industry up here.”
Panyan explained that she is working to earn her nursing degree, but if there are no jobs there will be no people. Without people, there will be no need for nurses — thus no future for her in the area.
“I want to stay on the Range,” she adamantly exclaimed. “If there isn’t a job, I will have to move.”
Panyan, an Iron Ranger through and through, doesn’t want to think that way, but acknowledges the future if PolyMet fails to open.
Another lifelong Ranger, Pat Heikkila, sat at a freshly-painted table eating a sandwich and soup.
“This place has the best Reuben sandwich,” she said, explaining that for this meal, she was branching out and trying a different menu item.
When asked about her opinion on PolyMet coming to the area Heikkila said, “I am neutral. It would be a good thing, but I haven’t gotten involved in meetings.”
Heikkila, who works at the Mesabi East School, mentioned the prospect of young families moving in to work at PolyMet. Not only would this revive businesses, but also the aging community.
“We have mining in the blood,” said Heikkila who’s father and brother were both miners. “We need something here to keep people here. Whatever happens, I want people to have good jobs.”
Good jobs and stability to the region is what PolyMet has been promising and what area residents have been waiting for since LTV closed in 2001. For the next generation of East Rangers, PolyMet is an even more urgent necessity. Barely born, if at all, when LTV closed, they see the copper-nickel project as jobs that will keep them close to home and sustain the community through their adult lives.
Brandi Salmela and Student 2 were just wrapping up a Wednesday school day at Mesabi East. Both were present at the Aurora public hearing in February, when scores of high schoolers walked into the gym where mining supporters, opponents, state officials and media gathered.
On the back of their shirts: “Tomorrow is Mine.”
“Over my lifetime I have seen businesses close,” said high school senior Robbie Peterson. “This is a way to revitalize the community.”
Peterson, who is already a trained firefighter, has plans to enter the Air Force and become a paramedic. “I want to come back to the Iron Range, raise a family and die here. The way our area looks now is unstable. With mining jobs you could be laid off at anytime — PolyMet would bring stability to our region.”
When asked what his future will look like if PolyMet falls through, Peterson didn’t hesitate.
“If it doesn’t happen, I will end up living somewhere not the Iron Range, not home. PolyMet will bring the spin-off jobs, like public safety workers. If the mine doesn’t come, I won’t be able to have a successful life here.”
Like Peterson, Brandi Salmela is also a senior at Mesabi East. Her parents are in the mines and she spoke at the Aurora hearing. She too, hopes for a career in health care, nursing.
“I did this for my grandpa, who was a miner,” she said. “I did this for my dad, who is a miner. I did this for myself, my friends and peers whose jobs will be in the mines and spin-off areas.” Peterson agreed saying, “It is time to start mining. This will be our source of income, our source of stability. Mining provides the clothes we wear and the food we eat.”
Salmela jumped in, “Mining supports our way of life — now and in the future.”