Report focuses on Empire Mine closure

ISHPEMING — Despite job losses in the region, economic rebound is possible. That’s the take-away from a Northern Michigan University Center for Rural Community and Economic Development report that was released today.

The report, which was commissioned by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation in April to help communities in western Marquette County recover from the closure of the Empire Mine and subsequent loss of over 300 jobs in 2016, fulfills three basic goals.

1. Provide a social and economic overview of current conditions in Marquette County with the specific focus of the report on the communities of Ishpeming and Negaunee; 2. present an example of a mining community that diversified its economy and provide an example of a community self-help model of economic development; and 3. identify the key factors in successful diversification efforts and make recommendations for the next steps in planning for Marquette County and the west end’s economic future.

NMU professor Michael Broadway, the lead researcher for the project, said mining communities face unique challenges since their economies are based on non-renewable resources.

“In western Marquette County, the exhaustion of iron ore and nickel in the near future is a reality that needs confronting,” Broadway said. “The challenge will lie in getting all the parties to work together for the common goal of improving the economy and providing a future for your people and the next set of displaced workers so that they will not have to leave the area to find work.”

According to a press release from the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development, research included in the report can be used as a blueprint for communities like Ishpeming and Negaunee as well as other communities in the region that have been offered technical assistance from state government through Project Empire.

Where we stand

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New state report on Empire Mine shutdown offers community hope

NMU researchers looked for examples of mining communities similar to Ishpeming and Negaunee that have rebounded economically, focusing on Canadian cities of Elliot Lake, Ontario, and Sydney, Nova Scotia.

In both cities, leaders rallied around unified economic development strategies and leveraged local assets, such as plentiful supply of affordable housing and access to outdoor recreational opportunities.

According to the report the mining industry is one of several employment sectors that dominate Marquette County’s economy. Others include public administration, education, health care and hospitality.

“The county’s three largest employers, UP Health System, Northern Michigan University and Cliffs Natural Resources are all reducing their number of employees. These declines in employment appear to be having a ‘ripple effect’ throughout the region’s economy as other employment sectors are also experiencing reductions in employment,” the report states.

In fact, according to the report, the total number of employed persons in Marquette County is about 2,000 less than the level of employment a decade ago.

Other elements that underscore an overall downward economic trend: the number of private business establishments in Marquette County declined by 5 percent between 2012 and 2015; total wages dropped by 1.6 percent and annual wages failed to increase; and Marquette County’s estimated number of food stamp recipients increased by 36 percent between 2010 and 2015, compared with a statewide increase of 32 percent.

In Ishpeming, the estimated median household income declined while the number of food stamps recipients almost doubled and the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced school lunches increased from 48 to 52 percent from 2010 to 2016, the report states.

Interim Dean of NMU’s College of Technology and Occupational Sciences Robert Eslinger said based on the two case studies in the report, things can turn around in communities that relied on mining for past economic development.

“There are things that can be done to help turn around a community, and I think that’s really the lesson,” Eslinger said. “And these are designed to be just two examples, but they are relevant because of the remoteness of the community, the likeness of the industry and in the case of Sydney, the Sisu-like attitudes of the people.”

David Nyberg, the director of the Northern Michigan office for Governor Snyder, said by looking at the experience of the case study communities, municipalities like Ishpeming and Negaunee have a chance to start to rebound.

“If you look at what the case study communities were able to do to mitigate a worse downward impact as a result of losing jobs associated with finite resources, is that they decided to not make their geography or where they are located determine their future,” Nyberg said. “They took matters into their own hands and decided that, its not where we are, its what we are going to do for our communities.”

Ishpeming City Manager Mark Slown said he is grateful for the insight the report will provide.

“On behalf of the City of Ishpeming, I appreciate the efforts of Dr. Broadway from NMU to create a meaningful and helpful study relating to the closure of the Empire Mine. Commissioned as part of Project Empire, Dr. Broadway’s study establishes a reasonable basis for the community to move forward following the loss of mining jobs in our area. Thanks to Project Empire, many of the people who lost their jobs are headed toward new opportunities,” Slown said. “Also, I wish to thank Governor Snyder and the entire Project Empire team for putting the effort together. While many people are still working to put many pieces of the economic development puzzle together, it has been great to receive help from the State of Michigan, MEDC, and NMU.”

The first phase of the Project Empire initiative was assistance for the 307 workers that were affected for the mine idling.

“Project Empire’s first focus was on the miners and their families, helping them get the support they need as they find new jobs or participate in training that will lead to new careers,” said Roger Curtis, director of the Department of Talent and Economic Development, which is overseeing Project Empire.

According to the release, 243 displaced workers have received services from the UPWARD Talent Council Michigan Works!.

“That includes 57 who used relocation benefits and have gained employment at companies including Hibbing Taconite Company Mine in Minnesota and Verso Corp. in the Upper Peninsula.

Others are receiving training benefits, with 53 former miners gaining new skills at NMU, Michigan Technological University, and Bay College. Another 35 are interested in training and are taking the next steps to attend training in the near futur,” the release states.

The state also has worked with the Lake Superior Community Partnership on a computer portal where affected miners can post resumes and search for jobs posted by area employers.

Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is