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Iron County sees growth in jobs, tourism

Progress 2020

Jessica Polich and Cam Aldegarie ride their bikes on the Heritage Trail along Highway 424 in Iron River. (Theresa Proudfit/Daily News photo)

IRON RIVER — The world is facing some challenging and uncertain times. It takes a willingness to innovate, collaborate, and invest if a community is to withstand the storms of the times, and Iron County is doing just that.

Over the past three years — and through this pandemic — community leaders, governmental units, local businesses and community organizations have been collaborating to put the structures in place to grow our economy, enhance our community and recreational assets, attract tourists, and assist entrepreneurs.

In this work of economic and community development, it’s important to be able to assess the health and vitality of our local economy, and to this end we’ve developed an Iron County Report Card — a snapshot of our economy that is a tool to help us know, rather than just guess, if we’re moving in the right direction.

Since January 2017, 50 new businesses have opened in Iron County, with even more on the way. During that same time, 17 businesses have been sold to new owners and have remained open — which means those jobs are staying here as well.

Iron County has also seen the creation of well over 100 new jobs since 2017. That’s more than $3.9 million in annual wages and benefits. If we look at our local economic multiplier of 1.43 — a value we’ve calculated conservatively to show the economic impact of wages to Iron County — that means that those jobs annually have more than $5.6 million direct impact to the county.

One sector of our economy that folks have been coming together to build is our outdoor recreation tourism industry. Tourism has long been a vital aspect of our regional economy, but there’s potential for it to have an even greater impact here in Iron County. Now, we’re all working hard to embrace the national trends in outdoor tourism and grow that sector of our economy while remaining conscientious stewards of our precious outdoor assets.

Two national trends in outdoor recreation tourism that we’re actively working to enhance are the growth in paddling, cycling and RVing.

On the paddling front, we have a new river map covering the whole county that charts 300 miles of waterways, access points, riverfront camping, and the location of rapids. To obtain a map, swing by the Iron County Visitors Center or find it online at iron.org/kayak.

On the cycling side, last year a 2-mile addition to the Heritage Trail non-motorized trail, heading west from Crystal Falls, was completed using funds from a Michigan Department of Natural Resources Trust Fund grant and Crystal Falls Township. It is part of an ambitious, multi-year trail project to connect Iron River to Crystal Falls. It is also part of Michigan’s Iron Belle Trail.

The newly-formed Iron County Trail Club has been improving trails near Lake Ottawa and they have completed a single-track mountain biking loop near the Stambaugh airport. Other trail projects are in the works as well, from fat-tire winter trails to more single-track trails and even a short pump track to help train local riders.

RVing is another growing sector in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Local banks have reported high numbers for the financing of travel trailers and motorhomes. The ICECA manages the RV park for the city of Iron River, and it’s become a great crucible to test and monitor our local tourism industry. 2019 saw more than 200% higher number of campers than in 2017. The park has 32 RV sites and, already, 19 of those are occupied by long-term campers — folks who are choosing to make Iron County their summer-long escape.

One of the strongest indicators that Iron County is weathering the storms is the forging of new cooperation between businesses. Local businesses promote each other on social media, and collaborate on shopping promotions. On the tourism side, the Iron County Lodging Association,Young’s Golf, Recreation & Dining, and the ICECA have come together to cooperatively market the summer tourism season through digital channels, from the web to Facebook, from Instagram to YouTube.

Iron County also listens to the voices of our neighbors, and attends meetings with other economic development organizations in the U.P. to collaborate on a regional scale.

We’ve still got lots of work to do, but by adapting, innovating, and collaborating, we’re going to keep seeing positive things here.

And, if anyone asks, Iron County is open for business.

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