He still isn’t sure. But Ott, who has a history of buying and rehabbing historic buildings, bought the 1903 landmark over the summer anyway — as well as the movie theater, built in 1936, and three other empty properties downtown.

Local leaders are happy as Boundary Waters loons.

Ott’s investment is poised to breathe extra life into their efforts to revitalize the wilderness gateway town of 3,500, where empty storefronts line sections of the main thoroughfare. City leaders and citizen groups are hopeful about coming change.

“We’ve been in this slide, but when the recession hit, it really killed our downtown,” Mayor Ross Petersen said.

Now Ely is on the rebound, he and others believe. A new library is set to open next month. An outdoor clothing manufacturer, Wintergreen, will reopen later this year. A winter boot manufacturer, Steger Mukluks, is planning an expansion.

It’s all happening amid a heated controversy over possible copper and nickel mining nearby, which promises good-paying jobs, but also brings environmental concerns.

Iron mining and logging were once major economic drivers in town. Now, many agree, tourism has taken the lead, although it’s hard to maintain a robust tourism economy in the long North Woods winters.

“Our city is going to be very hard-pressed to make it just on tourism,” Petersen said.

So boosters are forging ahead with or without mining, developing ideas for more festivals and amenities to draw both tourists and residents.

They brought in architects and designers from around the state recently to come up with a plan for giving Ely a revitalizing boost.

Officials are excited that high-speed, fiber-optic Internet service is slated to become available to each resident next year.

“There’s a lot of folks now who could live anywhere. If they could make a living here, they would move to Ely in a minute,” said Petersen as he strolled past empty storefronts. “We’re working on everything.”

Building on success

The woods and wildlife that draw tourists to town remain pristine and serene. But those strolling down Sheridan Street can plainly see signs of the decline. Boarded-up windows and “For Sale” signs dot downtown: There’s an empty chiropractor’s office, the empty theater, an empty gift shop, an empty restaurant. The list goes on.

“It’s a darn shame,” Petersen said, shaking his head. “In the early 2000s, our downtown was bustling. People were trying things because they wanted to live here. They didn’t realize how hard it was to make it during the winter.”

A few businesses have managed to thrive, helped by Internet, catalog and retail sales outside of town.

Steger Mukluks ran out of stock early this year after the extremely cold winter. The company, with a storefront in Ely, is planning to expand its manufacturing facility in town.

Down the street, Susan Schurke, the woman who started Wintergreen outdoor apparel in the 1980s while sewing dogsled expedition clothing for her husband and other explorers, is reopening a manufacturing facility and retail store. The company shut down last year under different ownership, but Schurke, who lives outside of town, said she’ll restart it on a smaller scale and is confident it will work.

“I guess I kind of missed being part of the town,” Schurke said. “There’s a lot going on right now in Ely, which is so exciting. There’s not many places like this in the world.”

‘Made in Ely’

Some Ely residents are stepping up to try to change the face of downtown, too. A grass-roots citizen’s group sprouted up last winter and dubbed itself “Incredible Ely.”

“We need to do something,” said Kelly Klun, Incredible Ely’s program manager and Ely city attorney.

The average age of a Boundary Waters camper has been increasing, she noted. “How do you attract a younger age group?” she asked. Maybe people are interested in day trips into the wilderness followed by a visit to the town spa, she suggested. One local business recently started offering luxury camping.

Incredible Ely arranged for a team of Minnesota architects and designers to visit recently to offer advice on how to remake their downtown. Among the top ideas: A unified “Made in Ely” logo that businesses could put on their wares to help promote the town. They also suggested turning some vacant lots into a downtown park that would draw people for concerts and other events. Other bigger ideas included putting a zip line over Miners Lake, just north of downtown, building a rec center and building a convention center.

“You want to create an atmosphere that encourages growth, development, people to move here, people to start their businesses here,” Klun said. “The downtown is your picture to the world of how viable you are.”

Petersen, who is not running for re-election this year, said he’ll still be active in trying to boost the town. He favors hiring an event coordinator to organize more festivals and gatherings, such as maybe a fishing contest and a half-marathon. “When we put on an event, it fills the town right up,” he said.

‘A very rich place’

Ott bought the mold-infested town theater for less than the taxes due on it, he said, and envisions restoring it to its 1930s Art Deco splendor.

The hospital’s price came in around $50,000, but will require “several hundred thousand dollars” to redevelop, he estimated.

The former radio station co-owner has redeveloped historic buildings in downtown Columbia, Mo., and other towns in that state, and said he’s optimistic that Ely will make a strong comeback.

He cited the solitude in the surrounding wilderness, the International Wolf Center, the North American Bear Center, as well as the local artists and musicians. The Mesabi Trail, a route for biking, hiking, skiing and snowmobiling in some sections, will be coming right through town, he noted.

“Ely has a lot of things going for it that a lot of little small towns don’t,” he said. “There’s just all of these interesting people with all this talent … It’s just a very rich place.”