I was very happy to hear the news that the effort to build rental housing in Lutsen that is targeted toward people who live and work in the West End took a big step forward this week. A $325,000 grant was awarded by the Minnesota Department of Trade and Economic Development to the Cook County/Grand Marais Economic Development Authority. This is a key piece of financing for a 2.7 million dollar plan to build 16 market-rate rental apartments in Lutsen.
The housing shortage in all of Cook County is severe, so this project, along with one planned for Grand Marais and one for Tofte, will be a big step toward easing the shortage. One Roof Community Housing, based in Duluth, is bringing their vast experience as a key partner, hopefully to all three projects. This is not the complete solution to the problem, but is a giant step in the right direction. We owe a debt of gratitude to the many people who have been working on this for so long.
Speaking of good news, I recently saw a report from Visit Cook County, the group that markets Cook County as a tourist destination, that tourism dollars county-wide are up 25% in the last five years. This is significant because it was a little over five years ago that the four parts of Cook County -- Grand Portage, Grand Marais, the Gunflint Trail and the West End -- decided to pool their marketing budgets and promote the county as a whole. Elaborate financial safeguards were put in place to make sure that each area was treated fairly, but even so, it was hard to build trust among the parts of the county that had been in competition with each other for so many years.
In the ten years before Visit Cook County was created, tourism was declining each year, leading up to the recession, which really took a toll. It is now crystal clear that the decision to work together has paid off handsomely for all. In fact, in the last year, Grand Marais has shown the most growth, which is obvious if you spend any time at all in town.
Our local marketing expertise is getting better all the time and the tools available for targeted marketing are also improving fast, so barring any unforeseen disaster, we should see robust growth for at least a few more years, especially in the slow seasons. Congratulations to the hard working staff of Visit Cook County for their success.
Word is out that ice skating has begun on inland lakes. It's not ideal, as there is some snow on the ice, but if you're willing to skate through the snow or do a little shoveling, there is good lake skating to be had.
Be careful - and I speak from personal experience - to always check the ice depth before you skate. Never skate alone and always carry ice picks to pull yourself out if you do fall through. You should also have dry clothing in a waterproof backpack or at least have access to dry clothing and a warm car nearby.
With some wistfulness, I would like to announce that this will be the last time you will hear me as the regular voice of the West End News. I am delighted to report that my very capable daughter, Clare Shirley, will be taking over this commentary, just as I took it over from my dad many years ago. I may be substituting occasionally for Clare when she is busy or out of town, so I may get a chance again to talk about the bloodmobile or the Birch Grove Carnival in the future, which makes me happy.
Even though I'm now officially a "townie," my heart will always be in the warm and wonderful West End.
For WTIP, this is Bill Hansen with the West End News.