On Friday, Jan. 8, the Ely City Council convened a special meeting at the Jailhouse Casino Motel. Its purpose: the creation and adoption of a strategic plan for the city, including a mission statement, vision statement and the identification of clear, specific goals. To the few members of the public present, the meeting provided a rare and interesting opportunity to witness their local government grapple with the broad issues the city will face in 2016 and beyond.
City Administrator Bob Switzer led the meeting, defining a strategic plan in large black letters on a sheet of paper perched on an easel.
“A process of investigation, learning and implementation in a collaborative environment so that the city progresses and evolves,” it read.
After the council and public had a moment to contemplate, Switzer folded back the page to reveal a new one.
“We’ve got a blank slate here,” he said. “Who are we? Why are we here?”
City Attorney Charles Odgers interjected legal advice at strategic points throughout the meeting.
“This is the important part,” he said, prefacing the opening discussion. “There’s no such thing as a bad idea. Let’s all get on the same track. How will people driving through view Ely?”
Switzer labeled the top of the page with his black pen:
“Why do we exist?”
Suggestions surged forth, such as the protection of the city’s people and infrastructure, sustainable economic growth, the promotion of tourism and utilization of surrounding natural resources. The council allowed candid input from the public.
“Do we want to grow?” one woman asked.
“We have to grow,” Switzer said. “Or we’ll stagnate.”
Councilman Sam Hanson presented a draft mission statement, with which Switzer, Odgers and the other council members tinkered before an agreement.
The draft mission statement for Ely approved unanimously by the council read:
“To promote, foster and support an efficient and safe environment where visitors, residents and businesses can pursue their dreams in an atmosphere of old-time Western hospitality and charm.”
The council next moved onto a draft vision statement, with Switzer instructing the members to think in terms of the next 10 years. The approved statement read,
“To be an economically diversified and vibrant municipality which promotes efficient, straight-forward and professional interaction between all stakeholders.”
Switzer then led the council in a discussion focusing on four areas: Ely’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
The council and members of the public came up with an extensive list in each area.
Ely has a rich Western history and a popular railroad attraction. The city’s isolation provides dark skies, high air and water quality and nonexistent traffic. It is close to a national park, two state parks and a national forest. Residents enjoy an almost unlimited variety of outdoor recreation opportunities, as well as low crime and utility rates.
But some issues balance those positives.
Much of the city’s economy relies on the success of its attendant copper mining industry. Metal prices remain volatile, discouraging real estate investment. Retail shopping options are minimal. An aging infrastructure holds back development, as do insular attitudes. The city is full of vacant buildings, yet struggles with a shortage of available housing and commercial space. Lack of job training leads to a lack of jobs, which contributes to alcohol and drug abuse. White Pine County also suffers one of the highest suicide rates in the United States.
Opportunities revolve almost exclusively around outdoor recreation and tourism. Motorcycles and classic cars cruise the state highways while dirt bikes, quads, trucks and Jeeps prowl the surrounding ranges. The county boasts of some of the best hunting and fishing in the world. There are canoes and kayaks on the lakes and dogs on the hiking trails. There are horses to ride, mountains to climb and caves to explore. Natural science and regional history surround the city. Quite literally, Ely is an adventure.
Identified threats ranged from the economic to the environmental. Mining layoffs directly impact Ely’s finances. Las Vegas developers have their eyes on upstate water in the middle of a region-wide drought, and the recent spate of deep snow damages Ely’s roads and threatens its electrical distribution network. There are perpetual land management disputes and suspicion of every level of government.
By 4 p.m. the meeting had adjourned.
It reconvened the next day at 9 a.m. and the council focused on identifying clear goals for the future. From those goals, the council created more detailed objectives and approved three. The first is “to increase tourism activity by 20 percent over the next three years.” The council also approved a motion to create a committee to accomplish that objective. The second approved main objective is “to have a net increase of five new or expanded businesses and an increase of five percent in employee base outside of the government sector in the next two years.” The third is “to increase funding for the most vulnerable infrastructure.”
Despite the complicated issues and variety of perspectives, a consensus emerged: Ely needs diversification.
“Even if the mine is running full time, we’re still shrinking,” Switzer said. He tentatively set the next special council meeting for Wednesday, Feb. 3, at 5:15 p.m.
“In my experience, we’re making great progress,” Odgers said. “It’s a very worthwhile process.”
Longtime Ely resident Ken Kliewer voiced his approval at the conclusion of the meeting.
“I’ve always been a believer that this town could be more than it is,” he said. “Keep the momentum going. As a happy citizen of Ely, thank you for your efforts.”
As a whole, the Ely City Council urges residents to come to their meetings and participate.