Dianda guests at Young Professionals Meet and Greet

HOUGHTON – State Rep. Scott Dianda, D-Calumet, and some of the Copper Country’s emerging business leaders traded ideas Wednesday at a Keweenaw Young Professionals Meet and Greet event at the Keweenaw Brewing Company.

Most of the conversation at the informal session focused on economic development and ways to provide opportunities for young people hoping to make a life in the Copper Country.

That’s long been seen as a challenge due to the area’s distance from urban economic centers, but Dianda said he sees more potential than obstacles.

“A big thing I’m hearing from younger people is that they’re seeing progress in the downtown businesses and want to come back to the area,” he said. “With the amount of intelligence in a room like we’re standing in, we can overcome any obstacle, solve any problems we have.”

For startup businesses, he noted, inexpensive real estate for both homes and businesses, along with the overall cost of living, provides a distinct advantage.

“That can be the difference between success and failure,” he said.

Also, he said, community leaders are committed to growth and willing to offer all the help they can to startups.

“Anybody that wants to open a new business we’ll meet with you night or day to get new jobs,” he said.

Jessica Brassard, a member of the Young Professionals steering committee, said she feels Dianda is “doing a lot of good fostering entrepreneurial opportunities up here.”

Ric Leivdal, a manager at Houghton Powersports, agreed.

“We’re doing what we can to keep people employed. I’m glad he’s doing the same,” Leivdal said.

One potential industry with a long history in the area and the potential for large-scale job growth is copper mining, which Dianda supports – if it’s done responsibly. He said strong measures need to be taken to protect the environment, with safeguards in place that hold mine companies responsible for environmental mitigation.

“I also have a strong commitment to making sure there’s no financial stress to the counties,” he said.

Nate Shuttleworth, co-owner of Keweenaw Coffee Works in Calumet, agreed reborn mining could be a good thing, depending on how it’s handled.

“If they do it a lot better than in the past, responsibly, it could be a good thing,” he said. “Environmental protection and cleanup is as important as making sure the money stays local.”

Dianda said the key to capitalizing on future mining, or any natural resource exploitation, is creating end products from those resources locally and regionally, “so it’s not just sent offshore where we have to buy the end product back.”

Michigan’s auto industry, Dianda said, uses a huge amount of copper wire, and could be a prime market for U.P. copper.

Various Young Professionals shared other legislative priorities and expectations they had for their representative.

Amanda McConnon, a Hancock native who just moved back to the area in October after five years in Madison, Wis., said she’d like to see Dianda stick up for public schools, and resist efforts toward privatization.

Valerie Baciak said she’d like government to help promote more green initiatives in the area, such as creating a local food network, more community gardens and farmers markets.

On the down side, “we just heard that there was a recycling depot that recently closed,” she said. “That’s a bad message to the community.”

Lianna Miller said economic development should focus on known strengths, such as tourism and technology.

And several attendees mentioned a never-ending challenge, making sure state government gives the U.P. its due, despite its lesser population.

“We always need somebody that’s going to remind Lansing we’re here, and we have potholes too,” said Brian Donnelly, manager of River Valley Bank in Calumet.