It’s time for “hygge” in the tourist area of Cook County at the tip of northeastern Minnesota.
If this is a new term for you, too, it comes from the Danes and defines the concept of quietly enjoying a simple pleasure, maybe a cup of good coffee in front of a warm fire. It’s what the Cook County tourism industry is selling now, since the snow hasn’t yet materialized for skiers.
Now, if only a few more employees were still around to help make the beds for visitors who want to enjoy a little hygge in the area.
While labor markets are tight across much of Minnesota, the worker shortage is acute in Cook County. Employers have tried just about every common-sense idea to get and keep people, leaning particularly hard on the option of importing them from abroad.
The biggest problem with those workers, though, is that they can’t stay in the country long enough. That the hospitality industry has lobbied for eased restrictions on foreign workers says a lot about the ineffectiveness of more conventional strategies.
The first thing you will hear by talking to people in Cook County is that one single idea won’t make all the difference. “It’s a tiered challenge,” said Linda Jurek, head of the tourism promotion group Visit Cook County.
Cook County’s workforce challenge can be at least partly explained by its sparse population and distance from bigger labor pools, as the county seat of Grand Marais lies a solid two-hours’ drive from downtown Duluth. It has a graying population, too, as more than 25 percent of county residents were 65 or older as of the last census estimate.
But the problem is further complicated by the nature of the local economy, which is highly tourism-centric. And, of course, there wouldn’t be talk about how to get more workers were it not for the fact that the local tourism industry is doing really well.
It’s not hard to understand the appeal of a visit, too, as Cook County is a genuinely beautiful part of the state, from the rugged shoreline of Lake Superior up through the Gunflint Trail that winds through dense forests.
But tourism is highly seasonal and tends to attract workers who only want or are only able to work at certain times of the year, typically the summer. The so-called shoulder season between the peak summer tourist visits and when the snow skiers show up can be trying for business owners.
Even with a robust ski season the summer months remain more popular with visitors, and a chart of the county unemployment rate shows just how seasonal the local economy is. In January the unemployment rate was near 6 percent and it bottomed in September at 2.8 percent. “Neither one is healthy,” said Jim Boyd of the Cook County Chamber of Commerce.
An obvious strategy is to smooth out the peaks and valleys by trying to attract visitors throughout the year, which in turn should make it easier to attract and retain a permanent workforce. But like a lot of simple ideas in business, making it happen is far from easy.
As a case in point, Boyd cites the dilemma of the Angry Trout Café on the harbor front in Grand Marais. It’s a restaurant so good the food critic at the Star Tribune said as recently as last summer that visitors to that part of the state should never miss it.
“They are absolutely not set up to heat that building in the wintertime,” Boyd said. “Plus, their menu is built around food — fish — that are also typically not available in any quantity in the winter. And so as we try to get a tourism economy to go across 12 months, we run up against too-few places for people to eat and too-few shops for them to find their gifts. So we have a lot of work to do.”
Even the success the region has already had in boosting business in the fall has stretched business owners and their staffs, largely because the foreign workers that help during the busiest months of the summer will be back home by then.
That’s when you see business owners personally emptying the trash and making beds. The busiest fall weekends, in October when public school kids get off from school and Thanksgiving, can leave business owners physically drained.
Another problem is workforce housing. Even if the businesses could recruit and retain a more permanent workforce, no one could say where they would find affordable places to live if workers wanted to make the region their home.
“The housing problem goes up and down the line, from entry-level staff up through managers,” said Nancy Burns, owner of Lutsen Resort on Lake Superior. Business owners have figured out a partial solution, and her resort houses up to 60 workers at the peak of the summer and perhaps 30 to 40 employees at other times. Burns pointed out that these are shared accommodations that married couples with kids wouldn’t find attractive.
Efforts to build permanent workforce housing are finally bearing some fruit. Two projects led by a nonprofit housing developer are getting underway next year, for a handful of single-family houses and 16 units of apartments. “It’s phase one of many more,” said Mary Somnis, executive director of the local economic development authority.
While it may seem that shortages of workers and affordable housing could both be solved by business owners simply paying higher wages, it’s important to point out that has already been done. Boyd described regional tourism as “extremely competitive,” and business owners in Grand Marais need to be cautious about boosting wages further to keep prices in line with those in competing tourist towns like Bayfield, Wis.
That’s why, when the Legislature was last debating an increase in the minimum wage, the Cook County chamber supported it. The hope was that lower-cost regions would have to pay closer to the wages already paid in Cook County.
As Burns from Lutsen Resort put it, “it’s been a long time since we’ve paid minimum wage.”