Fort Frances can be a tourist destination: speaker

Teamwork, incentives, and creativity are the keys to making Fort Frances a tourist destination.
That’s the message Ely, Mn. business owner Steve Piragis delivered to a crowd of about 20 people during the “Great Canadian Marketing” workshop last Thursday at the Adventure Inn here.
“It’s only my third time in Fort Frances,” said Piragis. “I didn’t stop on the main street, and I should have.
“Maybe that’s the problem,” he added. “You’ve got thousands of cars going down the street every day and you’ve got to make them stop.”
Piragis owns Piragis Northwoods Company, a canoe outfitter and retail outlet store. He moved to Ely in the late 1970s from New Hampshire—at the time that town was supported by mining and fishing tourism.
But changes to fishing regulations on the Boundary Waters in 1978 resulted in a blow to tourism for the area while 1980 saw a downturn in the mining economy.
A canoeing enthusiast, Piragis and his wife, Nancy, had started out selling just canoes and wood stoves. But as canoeing began to boom on the Boundary Waters, he began selling anything tourists might want, and by 1984 had started a restaurant.
With the influx of canoeing tourists, more and more people began to buy up the cheap property in Ely’s downtown core—eventually creating a shopping district drawing tourists there for that purpose.
Piragis noted affordable real estate, as well as tools such as low-interest loans for the purposes of business development, are key to getting young people with new ideas to start up their own businesses.
Ely, which has a winter population of 3,500, and a summer population of about 7,500-8,500, sees an estimated 10,000 non-residents a day through July and August.
Most of the tourists are from the Twin Cities, with a smaller percentage from out of state.
Piragis explained Ely has a good variety of businesses, ranging from the Steger Mukluk Co. (founded by North Pole explorer Will Steger) and an art gallery to a pizza place and four coffee shops.
There’s also tourist attractions like the North American Bear Center, International Wolf Center, and the Dorothy Molter Museum—a museum dedicated to preserving the spirit of Ely’s very own “Root Beer Lady.”
Just as important are three annual festivals Ely hosts. The Blueberry Festival held in late July draws 30,000-plus people while the Harvest Moon Festival and Ely Winter Festival each get about 15,000 attendees every year.
The latter, which features mukluk races, skiing, and ice sculptures, even draws snow artists from as far away as New Zealand.
“I think festivals are a great way to get people into town,” said Piragis, explaining all of the festivals are organized by the Ely Chamber of Commerce.
“The big problem with festivals is you run out of energy. You have to have new people to take over,” he stressed when asked how Ely can keep the festivals going year-after-year.
Piragis noted the Ely Chamber of Commerce pays for marketing by means of a three percent bed tax, which generated about $240,000 in 2006.
Marketing is handled by a private firm, which tries a lot of inventive marketing ploys. One example is hiring actors to pretend to fish outside Kaminski Park in Chicago, with signs directing people to come to Ely to fish.
Another is an ad campaign that refers to a fictional mental disorder called “Obsessive Compulsive Fishing” and then using the tagline: “Come to Ely. It’s a safe haven for those with the complexities of OCF.”
Piragis said while Ely does have its own problems, such as shrinking enrolment at its school, it has a lot of good things going for it—proving that a small town like Fort Frances can give its business sector a boost and be a successful tourist destination.
“The people in Ely probably didn’t work together to make it happen. There was not a lot of co-operation,” he remarked. “But you have the potential to work together and make it happen in a better, faster way.
“When I first started, certainly no one came around and said, ‘Let’s start a canoe outfitter.’ I think you really need to encourage people to start more business in some way,” added Piragis.
“Tax incentives, help with loans. You need new people with new ideas to start new businesses and come up with creative ideas.
“Some core group has got to get that going. It happened on its own in Ely. It was just luck. It doesn’t have to be that way.
“It took us [Ely] 30 years to get this point. I don’t think anybody wants to wait that long,” he concluded.
The “Great Canadian Experience” marketing workshop was attended by about 20 people.
It was organized by the Downtown Core Committee, and sponsored by the Adventure Inn and Rainy River Future Development Corp.