Bigger Than City Hall

In Conversation with Jay Arrowsmith DeCoux

As we ran up Minnesota’s North Shore to Grand Marais, which is also Andy’s hometown, we stopped in to chat with the city’s current mayor. Jay Arrowsmith DeCoux has held the role of mayor since 2014. He welcomed us into Art House Bed and Breakfast, a business he owns and operates along with his wife Rose. We chatted about living in a small town and what happens when you get a lot of snow. What follows is our edited conversation with Jay that day.

So how did you end up here, on the lake, in Grand Marais?

I was a canoe guide in 2003, up in Wilderness Canoe Base, up at the end of the [Gunflint] Trail. That was my first experience to Grand Marais. After I graduated college I was an intern at North House [Folk School]. So that was it. That was the connection. When I was an intern at North House in 2005 I met Rose, and brought her up here a couple times, and she came up here a couple times, and our relationship kind of grew up in Grand Marais. I moved back down to the cities after I was done with my internship and it just never worked. So then we came back up. And just made it work, as best we could. We lived up here from 2008 to 2011, then moved to India for a year and then came back.

We know that you’ve been involved in your community in a lot of different ways, and now you are the mayor. How did you end up deciding to run for that role?

Well, there’s a couple ways to look at it. Number one, there was just a huge vacuum there. Nobody was really showing any interest in doing it and whenever there’s not anyone who shows interest, that opens up the doors for people who really shouldn’t be in there. So I had a bunch of friends pushing me to run for County Commissioner and I wasn’t so sure, and I talked to a couple other folks who were like, you’re not ready for County Commissioner but you should get involved on a city level. So I said okay, I’ll get involved on a city level. I looked at the positions that were open, and it was two councilors and the mayor, and I thought if no one else wants to be the mayor, I’ll do it. So I signed up. At the time I had been organizing some economic development discussions, and had been working with the library board to do some new stuff, to provide business resources to people who live in town, so people knew who I was. They knew my name. And then I basically printed a bunch of postcards and walked around and knocked on everyone’s door and was like, Hi, I’m not a weirdo, and lo and behold.

Since you’ve been elected, how have things been going?

It’s been really good actually. Not without its bumps and bruises and challenges, but we’ve weathered things pretty decently well I think. We’ve taken a bunch of projects that had been shelved for long, long time, like twenty years long time, and actually got them going again. And got a bunch of them primed to be taken care of, to be actually done, you know, which is really cool. That’s part of the bumps and bruises because we’re finally starting to get this stuff on track again and people are like, “whooahh spending money.” If we don’t spend money then we won’t have any money. We’re not gonna be able to increase the tax revenue without raising taxes on people if we don’t attract new businesses and attract new people and how do we do that? We do that by investing in our town. Spending money, imagine that.

In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges you currently see facing the North Shore and Grand Marais in particular?

What are the places to go around Lake Superior? Well, Duluth, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, and there’s a couple other decent sized towns, like 10,000 people, but everything is so ridiculously isolated. Thunder Bay is the biggest city in Canada for 300 miles in any direction. And all we got is the natural resources, all we got is our geography, we don’t have anything else. We have a hard time convincing people to travel 100 miles up the shore to come stay in Grand Marais, when we know that it’s the coolest place on the shore. The location is such a challenge, it makes it really hard to get people to produce product here, because they know they have to ship in materials and ship out materials and it costs more to get stuff here. So it just increases the expense. It’s very similar to Alaska in a lot of ways. In Alaska everything is more expensive because it’s a pain in the ass to get anything there. And it’s the same thing here, it is really a pain in the ass to get anything here. And if there’s anything that ever happens with Hwy 61 then we’re screwed, we can’t get stuff. So, case in point what happened with the propane a couple years ago.

A couple winters ago it was that winter where it was stupid cold with a bajillion feet of snow, and all the pipelines were closed down because they were converting them. So there was no propane flowing to northern Minnesota, and then lo and behold it got really cold. So people started buying propane, and then there was no propane, so then the price of propane went up to five dollars, six dollars a gallon. So people up here were just broke. They went broke on heating their homes because propane was five dollars a gallon. And that was because of our location. Because of supply. So that’s an example of the disease, of what the problem is. We’re so far out here. We’ve gotta learn how to be more independent. The city is pushing a lot of solar, and trying to push a lot more renewable energy. Because we can produce a lot of our own energy.

As far as the future of small towns, anywhere but especially around Lake Superior, it’s gonna be housing. That’s gonna be the biggest problem, the biggest obstacle. People wanna live here. People wanna live on the North Shore and the reason they can’t is because houses cost $100,000 more than they do anywhere else. People are really wanting to move up here but they can’t buy a house. They can’t afford a house or else they just can’t find one, because the housing stock is shit. So that’s it. If you ask the University of Minnesota Center for Small Towns, which is University of Minnesota-Morris, there’s a brain gain happening in rural Minnesota, where there’s people who have these high degrees, like actual advanced degrees, and they want to move to the country, they want that standard of living. They don’t want to live in the city anymore. They don’t want to live in the suburbs because the suburbs are a bunch of bull, and they want to live in a small town, where they know their neighbors, where they don’t have to lock their doors and all these things. So that’s happening. It’s happening right now, and it’s not gonna change because it’s a value driven thing, and I think that is really great. But it also leaves a lot to be desired when you can’t fulfill that desire they have. They want to have this particular kind of life. And we have everything except one part of it. And they have a lot to contribute to our community, so why wouldn’t we do everything we can to get them in? So that’s my worry about it. What can we do to attract people to come up here? Or to return, after they’ve gone away to college and stuff like that, and make a business. Start your business in Grand Marais. Have kids, keep ‘em in the school, keep the schools strong, you know, support your community, that kind of a thing. And I think we’re getting closer, it is getting easier to live here, but then we run into a barrier about that all the time too, because all the old timers don’t want it to be easy to live here. They want it to be hard to live here because that’s how it was for them. And there’s a certain level of, you know, pride and value in the fact that they’ve had to scramble their way to find their place in this town, and somebody else just comes in and buys a house and has a $60,000 a year job, and is able to live a great life up here without really working that hard, then they feel slighted. But that’s changing. A lot of the old timer stuff is not what it used to be.

Living on the world’s largest freshwater lake and looking to the future of this region, how do you see climate change playing a role?

Climate change is an interesting conversation in regards to this region anyway, because, for example, Lutsen Mountain, they’re investing 8 million bucks into their facility. They put up a brand new gondola, they’re in the midst of getting another 1,000 acre lease from the Forest Service so they can double the number of runs they can have. They’re trying to make themselves a destination skiing resort on the North Shore. It’s all well and good but if we don’t get snow they’re screwed. There’s no way they’ll be able to make snow for that many runs.  So that’s something that climate change is a direct impact to. The other thing that climate change is a direct impact to is, hey, guess what happens when these lakes warm up? Fish change. The fish that are up here, they like the cold water. If the lakes warm up the trout are gonna die and then we’re not gonna have a huge section of our economy. The fisheries in Lake Superior are already under attack because all of those fish that normally can’t survive in cold water are starting to come in the tributaries of Lake Superior because it is warming up. And there’s nothing we can do about that. They put those electric nets in the bottoms of the rivers and stuff, but that’s not working very well either. It changes the algae blooms. Lake Superior is the deepest and the clearest because it’s the coldest. As it warms up, it’s not gonna make much difference.

It seems like the majority of communities around the lake are pretty small and their economies rely heavily on the sustaining a seasonal tourist industry. Living in a small community such as Grand Marais, what is your perspective on that?

It’s either tourism or extractive industry, and that’s definitely a challenge. I think honestly, if I was gonna solve the North Shore economy problem, I would be selling the standard of living up here. That’s the number one thing. Because for a lot of people, if they’re going to be relocating a business, where do you want to relocate your business? You want to relocate to a place where there are tax benefits, where housing is cheap, and where there’s lots of space you can get. Grand Marais has none of those things. Like zero of those things. There’s space, like we have the business development park, which is decently cheap now, but the development costs are extravagant. It costs twice as much to develop a business here as it does somewhere else. So why would someone do that? Because it has a lot of value to their employees, or because they can market themselves in a specific niche that then gives additional value to their product.

And that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about, like we need to develop Grand Marais as being a destination. So that people identify Grand Marais with high quality, with innovation, you know as far as craft and art is concerned. Because I do think that’s where we’re at. We’re at a point where we can start to bring in art and craft industry, not just artisans and craftspeople. So that’s kind of where I’m leaning with it, and there’s a lot of other people who agree with me. So that’s pretty exciting, I think. But there’s a lot of stuff we need to do on that. That’s not politics, that’s not policy, that’s stuff that has to be done within the culture of the city itself. So that’s more than me, that’s bigger than city hall.