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Biwabik on brink of something big

With new trails, new lodging and housing, and new infrastructure, the East Range town banks on growth.

Bartender Karen Blais restocks the bar at Vi’s Pizza and TNT Bar
Bartender Karen Blais restocks the bar at Vi’s Pizza and TNT Bar in Biwabik on March 25.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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BIWABIK — It wasn't so long ago that deteriorating streets had become as notable in this East Range town of 960 residents as its Bavarian-themed buildings.

As charming as Biwabik was, the infrastructure was failing and costing the city opportunities for growth.

Biwabik.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

“Having streets and infrastructure in the condition they were in wasn’t going to be conducive to development,” said longtime Mayor Jim Weikum, who was first elected in 2008.

The ensuing decade found the city and state focus on putting roughly $20 million into the town’s streets and utilities, including a reconstructed Main Street on state Highway 135 through town and 80%-90% new underground infrastructure.

When the News Tribune visited Biwabik in March, the summer was scheduled to bring final amenities to the rebuilt Main Street. And the city was embarking on its next strategic plan — one aimed at building up and out instead of underfoot.

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Biwabik Mayor Jim Weikum talks about his city
Biwabik Mayor Jim Weikum talks about his city March 25.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“Now that we have decent infrastructure in place, we can fix other stuff now,” City Administrator Jeff Jacobson said. “We have areas we can expand. We have a lot to offer, so how do we market and deal with people potentially coming in?”

To hear sources tell it, Biwabik is now ready for closer inspection and future growth.

New ATV, mountain bike and ski trails are being paired with a massive luxury housing development across from the area’s staple attraction, Giants Ridge ski area .

Entrepreneurs old and new have taken notice.

“The wave is coming is the way I look at it,” Shawn Callahan said. “There’s no doubt Biwabik is going to change dramatically in the next three to five years.”

Callahan, 50, owns Green Gate guest houses just outside downtown. It’s an old farmstead Callahan has personally restored into a small village of rustic cottages. Weikum steers anybody looking to stay in Biwabik toward Green Gate.

Biwabik Mayor Jim Weikum, right, opens the front door to the Green Gate Gasthaus in Biwabik
Biwabik Mayor Jim Weikum, right, opens the front door to the Green Gate Gasthaus in Biwabik on March 25. Many of the buildings along Biwabik’s main street feature a Bavarian-inspired facade.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

And its owner is branching out, developing both a community garden and a network of cross-country ski trails on the farmstead that will connect with Giants Ridge’s world-class trail offerings.

“It’s a lifelong dream project to have a place where you can just drink coffee in the morning, strap on your skis and go skiing all day,” Callahan said. “And that’s what’s going to happen here.”

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Callahan has also turned his attention downtown, where he bought a building across from Biwabik City Hall that he’s turning into a coffee shop and three additional short-term rentals — all renovated with the mechanical engineer’s keen attention to design and detail.

“Shawn and I have had extensive conversations about our vision for this space,” said his sister and coffee shop partner, Tammy Schotzko. “We really want to have a gathering space where locals can come, but also where people who come to the Ridge can make memories.”

Biwabik Mayor Jim Weikum, left, chats with Tammy Schotzko in one of the renovated short-term rentals in the Green Gate Gasthaus
Biwabik Mayor Jim Weikum, left, chats with Tammy Schotzko in one of the renovated short-term rentals in the Green Gate Gasthaus in Biwabik on March 25.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Expected to open around July 4, Green Bean Coffee Haus will be the first stand-alone coffee shop in town, as Callahan works to help create a vibe that’s already spread to places like Crosby and Chisholm — areas where networks of mountain bike trails are helping to reshape communities.

“All that development and new energy coming to those towns is foreshadowing what we see here,” Callahan said.

Weikum agreed, and cited the burgeoning Voyageurs Retreat as evidence. The high-end housing development features 250 lots along the eastern shores of Wynne and Sabin lakes.

Shallow-watered swells of river, Jacobson referred to the lakes as “silent-sport” lakes, suitable for kayaking or stand-up paddle-boarding. About 60 new homes, each worth well north of $250,000, have been built since the development started slowly during the recession from 2007-09.

A home is under construction next to a completed home in a development near Giants Ridge in Biwabik
A home is under construction next to a completed home in a development near Giants Ridge in Biwabik on March 25.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“Mountain biking is becoming a fairly common one-topic answer for why they’re building,” said Weikum, noting how some of the local mountain biking trails are served by Giants Ridge’s ski lifts, bringing added appeal.

Both Weikum and Jacobson noted the considerable tax base increase from the new homes, and how the development is attracting people who want to work remotely and leave metropolitan areas behind.

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Biwabik City Administrator Jeff Jacobson talks about some developments
Biwabik City Administrator Jeff Jacobson talks about some developments as he points at a map at City Hall on March 25.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“Along with the national trend, we’re seeing telecommuters — people who live up here and run their engineering firm or law office in another area,” Jacobson said.

For Kim Mattson, owner of Vi’s Pizza , betting on Biwabik has been a family tradition since her grandmother began operating the pizza kitchen out of her house decades ago.

“People would get pizzas in the alley out of the back of the house,” Mattson, 66, said. “I would love to see her in business nowadays. She could do anything.”

Mattson and her husband, Jeff, have owned the restaurant for nearly 40 years, moving it around town before settling in its current location at 111 Main St. N. seven years ago.

Folks enter City Hall in Biwabik
Folks enter Biwabik City Hall on March 25.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Like Callahan did with his properties, Mattson’s sons, Trevor, 39, and Travis, 43, built out Vi’s Pizza with a rustic theme, including a handmade bar, tables and chairs, a stone fireplace and heavy log cabin rafters.

Vi’s is the sort of establishment that hearkens to old Biwabik, when it was among the earliest iron mining towns. Its secret recipe hasn’t ever changed and the nostalgic cravings for the pizza are strong. Mattson regularly mails boxes of pizzas to satisfy customers anywhere.

“Montana, Pennsylvania, Alaska — all over the country,” Mattson said. “It’s not cheap. I always caution, ‘You don’t want to do this.’ But they say, ‘It’s cheaper than coming home.’”

Mattson recalled a time she would watch people pass through town, never stopping.

“It hadn’t been built up,” she said.

But that would appear to be changing. With new places to stay and even live, new trails to explore, and new adventures to experience beyond the golf and downhill skiing that have been long-standing attractions, Biwabik appears to be on the verge of something big.

A final section of the Mesabi Trail between Biwabik and McKinley goes out for bid this summer, and when that 7-mile stretch is complete a person will be able to road bike from Grand Rapids to Ely without going off-trail. There's also a new ATV trail coming from Gilbert east to Biwabik.

“When I got here in 2007 (from Mankato), a fair amount of folks hadn’t worked in weeks to months,” Weikum said, citing a mining downturn. “Right now, it’s going well, and we’re hoping that has a spillover effect into other stuff.”

Visitors to the Green Gate guest houses have the opportunity to stay in the Barn House
Visitors to the Green Gate guest houses have the opportunity to stay in the Barn House as well as a few others on the property just outside Biwabik.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

ArcelorMittal is mining again west of town after a multiyear absence. And both Weikum and Jacobson said they’re receiving regular inquiries about buildings downtown, some of the interest coming from new residents living at Voyageurs Retreat and other lush housing lot developments.

“Some of the new couples and families are thinking maybe they’d like to start a business,” Jacobson said. “We’re starting to get some feelers.”

They can only hope others follow the path cut by Callahan. He left metropolitan living and saw promise in a dilapidated farmstead.

“It all came together in my head,” he said. “This is where I could do some unique lodging.”

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Brady Slater covers St. Louis County and transportation for the Duluth News Tribune. He's a veteran journalist, and a University of Pittsburgh graduate who was born and raised in the Northland. He can be reached by emailing bslater@duluthnews.com or by calling or texting 218-721-2724.
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