Environment
6:00 am
Thu July 31, 2014

Voices of Support for Proposed Penokee Mine

Where the Kakagon Sloughs meet Lake Superior's Chequamegon Bay north of the proposed mine.
Where the Kakagon Sloughs meet Lake Superior's Chequamegon Bay north of the proposed mine.
Credit S Bence

As vehemently as some residents of far northern Wisconsin oppose the proposed iron ore mine south of Lake Superior, others staunchly support it.  We talk with several people who want mining now.

It’s late afternoon, and Jack Giovanoni just finished a satisfying round of golf at Eagle Bluff. A few southeasterly miles away sits his hardware store in downtown Hurley.

Jack Giovanoni has been pushing for a new mine ever since the last one shut down.
Jack Giovanoni has been pushing for a new mine ever since the last one shut down.
Credit S Bence

Giovanoni’s family history stretches back here. Both his grandfathers worked in the mines, so did his dad, before becoming sheriff and mayor.

Giovanoni went off to college at Marquette University and returned to take over his dad’s hardware business.

“I built this store six months after the last mine closed; so I’ve always had faith in this area. My wife and I worked 18 hours a day to build this store up,” Giovanoni says.

In the best of times, Giovanoni employed 50 people and provided health insurance for all, now he says, I’m trying to figure out how to keep it open.

For as long as the last mine closed, Giovanoni says he’s been promoting a new one. Today, at age 80, he’s optimistic.

“I think we’re going to get it but, goddam it, I want to get it before I die,” Giovanoni says.

He blames – in part – “the media” for bogging down the mining debate. He berates journalists for depicting the proposed site as “pristine.” Giovanoni counters with, “the region was mined extensively for generations.”

“And another thing the press has not been fair with us on; if anyone is for the mine, that means they’re against the environment. This is our environment. We live here; we don’t want to screw up what we live in,” Giovanoni says.

I ask, what story should be told. Giovanoni says, “Tell the truth! Talk to the people who live here.”

Joany Swetkovich is one of those people. She’s standing outside what used to be Bella’s and Bruno’s Restaurant and Bar - in a wisp of a town called Iron Belt, not far from Hurley. She shows me a yellowed picture of the place.

Bella's and Bruno's place opened in Iron Belt in 1959.
Bella's and Bruno's place opened in Iron Belt in 1959.

“This is a postcard of my business when my parents worked on it and built it in 1959"  Swetkovich says. "They opened on New Year’s Eve. It was a booming business. White Cap Mountain opened the year before they built it, Badger Motel up the street and so my parents were really busy here. They put their heart and soul into everything.”

Swetkovich decided to take on her parent’s business and raise her kids here. Yet three of her four children have moved away and she struggles to keep her place afloat.

“I work harder, longer hours because of the lack of business, but that’s why I’m a survivor here; and I will survive even if the mine doesn’t go through, but it’d be really nice for the whole area to get it to go through,” Swetkovich says.

She’s confident a new mine would not ruin the air and water.

“I don’t think the standards are weak and that it’s going to be environmentally unsafe. I don’t think in this day and age that it’s going to happen; that the DNR, the EPA are going to make sure it’s done right. I know it’s going to bring jobs to people out of the area. Engineers have LEFT this area, they might come back. The school system - if you talk to our principal or superintendent - the attendance is down,” Swetkovich says.

Joany Swetkovich started peeling potatoes at her parents' restaurant when she was 13 years old.
Joany Swetkovich started peeling potatoes at her parents' restaurant when she was 13 years old.
Credit S Bence

Chris Patritto is superintendent of Hurley’s schools.

He’s part of another multi-generational Iron County family, and feels passionate about helping his district – his hometown, prepare kids for potential mining jobs.

“We’re already looking at planning – should things go through – training for the mine. We’ve already brought in welding; we would look more into machine tool operating mechanics, big equipment,” Patritto says.

Patritto considers himself one of the lucky few; he went off to college in Eau Claire and after, found work in his hometown. But the four children he raised in Hurley have scattered around the country.

Yet, after decades of hanging on in a depressed economic state, Patritto says, he finally sees a glimmer of hope in people’s eyes.

“Let let the professionals make the decision if this is good or not, let them make the decision and go from there. It won’t do us any harm; let’s put it that way,” Patritto says.

A thread runs through most of the stories people in northern Wisconsin shared – a fervent desire to stay put and create jobs for the next generation.

Tomorrow, we hear from people who are against the mine.