One compelling element of the proposed iron mine in the Penokee Range is employment. An Ashland city councilor insists the area has multiple options for creating jobs.
Kelly Westlund’s energy force seems to keep her weatherworn mini cooper rumbling across town.
She came to Ashland from South Carolina in 2002, to attend Northland College. Westlund says, after surviving her first brutal winter here, she was hooked, including, on maintaining the region’s resources.
“When I was still at Northland, I got an internship with the Alliance for Sustainability and that was going door to door around Chauwomagon Bay asking people to trade me their incandescent lightbulbs for our CFLs. They all called us the light bulb ladies,” Westlund says.
Today, Westlund is married to an Ashland native and runs her own consulting business. It designs websites and orchestrates marketing campaigns for clients.
She takes me to one she believes represents a slice of the region’s job-building potential. Westlund ushers me into a former agriculture research center. It’s now home to the “Lake Superior CSA.”
Farmers regularly drop off their products for customers who’ve bought a share of each operation. The 200 subscribers not only munch locally grown fruits and vegetables – Westlund says they can procure local beef, artisan cheese and even bubbly libations.
“They’re not all farmers – I use them as a generalization. For instance White Winter Winery and Boudin Fisheries is a member, it’s a big fishery in Bayfield,” Westlund says.
Westlund says the operation started three years ago with a half dozen producers. Today, there are 18 and the customer base has grown even faster.
“The demand, I mean, it’s a good problem to have, but we can’t keep up with it, what we need is more people growing more food. We started with the CSA in 2010 and the revenues were in the neighborhood of $30,000 and this year, by March we had done – oh-oh I’m not sure I’m allowed to share the numbers – we were in the six digits; well into the six digits,” Westlund says.
Westlund sees growing potential in the dormant 200-plus acres surrounding this building.
“If we could use some of this land to start bringing in people who are thinking about becoming farmers and teaching them the skill set that they need before they strike out on their own,” Westlund says.
Westlund says she’s confident that agriculture can be the linchpin of a thriving regional economy.
“A lot of these farms – their kids are coming home to work on the family farm. You’re seeing the grown children come back to continue in that line of business and that’s just really really incredible,” Westlund says.
We head back into Ashland, with Lake Superior glistening over our shoulders. Westlund also has hopes the region can build on its existing tourism market and nurture water-related research.
“ We have a growing medical field in this region. We have a lot of great entrepreneurs on Main Street that are doing really and it’s almost surprising considering the larger state of the economy,” Westlund says.
Westlund points out an shop specializing in outdoor gear that opened a couple years ago. Then she swings past her personal favorite - upstairs features fitness classes, downstairs – a café bar.
“And the other thing is there’s an opportunity for telecommuting. I’ve been doing websites for companies from outside the region. So, just because you’re remote, doesn’t mean you can’t find a job,” Westlund says.
Westlund acknowledges spreading her optimism to Ashland’s neighbor – Hurley - is a harder sell. The people there come from a mining tradition.
At a public hearing on the proposed mine, Kelly Klein said a related jobs have already arrived in town.
“ Let’s keep this process moving along. It’s very important to our area – not only for the economy of the future, but for today’s economy as well. Already, jobs, local expenditures and tax revenue have impacted Iron County,” Klein says.
Tensions over a mine run deep. Residents feel their quality of life is at stake.