BIWABIK, Minn. — Weather is seemingly always a factor in northern Minnesota, as the mercury swings wildly between double digits below zero in the depths of winter, to near triple digits above in the dog days of summer.
Amid all of the challenges faced in 2020, the weather for outdoor activities has been relatively good. For a weather-dependent economic driver like Giants Ridge, on the edge of the region long known as the Iron Range, that means good news on several fronts.
The winter was generally mild, with a healthy amount of snow, which meant busy days on the 35 groomed ski runs there. So far the summer has been sunny and warm, without an abundance of rain, which has meant busy times on Giants Ridge’s 36 holes of golf.
“Weather is a really big deal. If the weather is good, they get really good results,” said state Sen. David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, who represents the region in the state legislature. “People golf in good weather, they don’t golf in bad weather. They don’t ski when it’s 40 below, but they ski when it’s 25 and sunny.”
On Presidents' Day earlier this year, it was around 25 with peeks of sun amid fresh-falling snow at Giants Ridge. The east-facing ski slopes, which overlook two small lakes, were not packed, but were busy, with hundreds of visitors from Duluth, the Twin Cities and elsewhere throughout the region (Ontario license plates were common on the cars in the parking lot) getting in a few more runs before heading back to face another work week.
“We’ve had a good year, between a little bit warmer weather — we haven’t had many of those 40 below days — and we’ve had a great snow year,” said Benji Neff, the facility’s director of mountain sports, speaking above the lunchtime din inside Giants Ridge’s on-site bar and restaurant, the Burnt Onion. “A lot of times we’ll have snow when the Cities have had rain, so we’ve seen an uptick in the amount of visitors for sure.”
In the final weeks before the coronavirus pandemic struck the region with full force, Neff noted that they had about 200 full- and part-time employees on the payroll of this facility that was bankrolled by the State of Minnesota and the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board in the late 1980s for specifically this purpose — to grow the region’s economy beyond traditional avocations like mining and foresting, while providing a new recreation destination in Minnesota.
“Take a holiday weekend and there are people from throughout the region here, they’re staying in our lodging both on the property and elsewhere nearby,” said Neff, who oversees the Minnesota State High School League’s annual downhill and cross country skiing championships, held at Giants Ridge each February. “They’re eating and drinking here and in Biwabik, Gilbert, Virginia and Eveleth, so this is a major part of that.”
When the snow melts away, the focus turns to golf and gravity sports, which have grown notably at Giants Ridge in the past two decades. The two on-site golf courses — the Legend and the Quarry — are ranked among the best in the state by noted publications such as Golf Digest, making this an emerging golf destination far beyond the confines of northeastern Minnesota.
“We cater to largely a drive-to crowd. About 80% of our golf business comes from 100 miles away or further,” said John Kendall, the facility’s director of golf. “So there’s typically a little more involved than just a day of golf. It’s usually part of a bigger vacation or a multi-stay trip.”
Kendall, who has been with Giants Ridge since 1998, noted that they are not at full employment this summer. Precautions related to COVID-19 have not restricted golf in Minnesota, but have created other impediments.
“Most of the concerns that customers have aren’t golf-related, they’re travel-related. For a facility like ours that’s a destination, the travel and the lodging are a bigger question mark than the golf,” Kendall said. “The things that are hampering us is the Canadian border is closed, so our Canadian guests can’t come down and visit and it also takes away the portion of our guests that are playing golf here on their way to a Canadian fishing trip, heading north with a boat in tow. That crowd is not present this year.”
Still, depending on which set of numbers you read, things like golf, skiing and the ever-expanding mountain biking opportunities at Giants Ridge, along with associated lodging, food and bar business and special events, mean an annual economic impact somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 million for this part of the state. It is viewed by some as the next wave of the economy here, advocating things like fish farming in abandoned mine pits, and the conversion of other pits to places where off-highway vehicles and mountain bikes can have room to roam. Experts view it as a small, but important, step for the area which has seen good and bad times in mining for generations.
“Tourism can’t replace mining. It’s not even close to the economic impact. But there’s a place for tourism,” Tomassoni said. “You have to take all of the facets of the economy and put them together for the full impact. The biggest thing we have is our natural resources-based economy with the miners and the loggers, but tourism is definitely one of the cogs in that wheel for sure.”
With that in mind, there is a strong push among leaders in the region to expand mining, via proposed projects like expanded copper and nickel extraction near Ely and Hoyt Lakes. While some see jobs and a resurgence of the mining economy in this part of Minnesota where it has been the defining occupation for more than a century, others see more mining as a threat to the pristine air, woods and water that have made places like Giants Ridge an increasingly popular destination.
Tomassoni, among others, advocates for expansions of both mining and outdoor recreation, and vows that they can and will go hand-in-hand.
“We’ve been mining for 135 years, and the environmental report cards say that we have the only clean water in the entire state,” he said. “So we have managed not only to build America by mining ore and providing the natural resources, but we’ve done it in a clean and pristine way. We live there, we work there, we play there, so we are the first ones to tell you we want to keep the place nice for our grandkids.”