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Community Concerns Explored Along the North Shore

Connected by history and a narrow highway, the people of Minnesota's North Shore might be viewed as belonging to a linear community one that stretches 189 miles and spans about 5. Although they are unquestionably independent, Minnesotans living close to Lake Superior share common economic and land use concerns, some of which were discussed by over 100 attendees of the State of the Coast 2003 Conference held on April 28 in Two Harbors, MN.

The annual conference is organized by the North Shore Consortium, of which Sea Grant is a part, to motivate government officials and citizens to use accurate information and innovative ideas to sustain Minnesota's coastal communities and environments. This year's presentations and panel dialogs revealed some defining facts about this swath of people, land, and water.

Wage Comparison: Northeast Minnesota

An average weekly wage comparison for regional industries in Northeastern Minnesota. Manufacturing and mining work pays much better than hospitality jobs, such as waiting tables and changing linens.

For instance, if time equals money, then an hour in Grand Marais is worth $10.40, the average hourly wage in Cook County. Jump down the shore to Lake County and your hour is worth $13. In St. Louis County it becomes $14.80, thanks to utility, manufacturing, and professional jobs offered in Duluth.

Money might not make the world go around but it certainly spins economies. Noting that people are spending more and saving less, Scott Moore, Northeast Regional Labor Market Analyst for the Department of Economic Security said, "We could be approaching our spending capacity. North Shore real estate is still booming but it's becoming difficult to find work and government spending will certainly be reduced."

As the labor market softens (with the exception of specific skills) and the value of the dollar teeters, Moore sees the next few years as a time for economic conservation and creative financial planning in North Shore communities and households.

"A huge challenge to counties like Cook, Lake, and St. Louis is to maintain wholesale trade in the face of Internet shopping and to cultivate new customers," he said.

Although jobs in the retail and hospitality industries are often less lucrative than other areas of employment (see Wage Comparison in Northeast Minnesota graph), they represent a large proportion of jobs in the region's coastal communities (see Snapshot).

Snapshot of North Shore Counties 2002

County Cook Lake St. Louis
Population 5170 11,084 199,460
People per Sq. Mile 3.6 5.3 32.2
Job Gain/Loss -2.5% 2.5% -3.1%
Retail Employment 12% 12% 14%
Hospitality Employment 34.4% 17.6% 9.6%

Interestingly, Lake County exceeds the retail sales per capita of its neighboring counties, indicative of visitor activity coupled with sparsely populated terrain.

Shifting population demographics and economic conditions have taken their toll on the North Shore; so have two years of snow-challenged winters that damaged winter tourism and froze septic systems. Six hundred families requested health, housing, transportation, and other assistance from Lake County Human Services last year, continuing a rise in hardships among families that are older and more educated compared to a decade ago.

It's not exceptional fecundity or job opportunities that had Lake and Cook counties growing by 6.2% and 33.6%, respectively. It's exceptional scenery and an affluent older population.

And when did the Pied Piper pass through? The lack of jobs and affordable family housing make thriving difficult for those starting out, so they leave. Simultaneously, graying emigrants are arriving. About 17% of the region's populace have survived over 65 years. An older population might be a wiser one, but not necessarily in peak physical condition; health care is an escalating concern.

Despite the bleak economy, high-end resorts and home are increasingly dotting Minnesota's coastal areas. "The North Shore is changing and many of these changes are taking place 5, 10, 20 acres at a time," said Jesse Anderson of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) vocalizing a general truth about Minnesota's coastline. The township with the most remarkable growth spurt was Lutsen, which doubled with 120 more residents.

MPCA staff, while working on a report to be released later this year, found that during the past 20 years, Lake and Cook counties processed over 1,570 permits for new wells. One by one these permits are unremarkable, but together they equal something rather big DEVELOPMENT.

Developers are willing to cooperate with communities that want to retain their character but expressed frustration over lack of a clear vision and guidelines to work from.

"Developers have the most to lose if they produce an ugly project," said Sam Cave, of Ed Cave and Sons. "Developers deserve to know what the rules are and need to know in advance about what the community needs and wants."

Bob Ryan of Odyssey Development added, "We're not afraid of design criteria. For instance, at Crow Creek we're catching 100% of the run-off from the roof and using it so it doesn't land in the lake."

What the community wants is affordable housing for the people needed to staff the developments and the preservation of open space. In light of conserving open space some residents think implementing transferable development rights, where development rights on protected areas are traded or sold to be used in areas designated for future growth, might be a way to work with developers to leave tracts of boreal forest standing along the North Shore.

Managing the social, economic, and environmental health of Minnesota's coastal community necessitates that the voices of residents, visitors, and investors join in effective planning. Otherwise, this linear community could get tied up in knots.

By Sharon Moen
July 2003

Return to July 2003 Seiche

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