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Kellogg wiping tarnish off its silver industry

Idaho ski area welcomes miners’ return to town

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A real estate office is shaped like a traditional miner's hat in Kellogg, Idaho, which has seen its once-battered mining industry re-energized by rising metal prices.

A real estate office is shaped like a traditional miner’s hat in Kellogg, Idaho, which has seen its once-battered mining industry re-energized by rising metal prices.

Nicholas K. Geranios, Associated Press

KELLOGG, Idaho — Just when locals thought the mining industry was deader than Noah Kellogg's mule, more miners are suddenly heading back down the shafts in northern Idaho's Silver Valley.

A steep rise in metals prices has re-energized this battered area's original industry, even as two decades of efforts to turn Kellogg into a ski resort are finally paying off.

The scene is the same in some other Western mining towns that were long given up for dead.

While condos, a gondola and a new indoor water park have replaced the giant smokestacks and piles of mine waste that used to greet visitors to Kellogg, a growing number of workers are putting on hardhats and riding cages deep into the Sunshine and Lucky Friday mines.

Many are former residents who left for mining jobs elsewhere.

"A lot of people who left have been coming back because things are pretty good," said Rick Decker, a miner for three decades who is also president of Local 5114 of the United Steelworkers in Kellogg. "Most of the laborers are people who had been here at one time or another and who left and came back."

Don't expect any clash of cultures in this narrow mountain valley that has produced silver for more than a century. The ski bums wouldn't stand a chance.

"There is definitely a mining culture in the Silver Valley," said Vicki Veltkamp, spokeswoman for Hecla Mining Co., which owns the Lucky Friday.

"They are two different, distinct type of businesses," said Bob Hopper, co-owner of the New Bunker Hill Mine in Kellogg. "As far as I am concerned, there is plenty of harmony."

Locals acknowledge that tourism helped keep this area afloat during more than a decade when silver prices of $4 an ounce caused mines to close or scale way back. Increased mining is compatible with the people who use the Silver Mountain ski area, the water park that is billed as the first at a Western ski resort, and the 18-hole golf course and luxury homes going up on the edge of town.

"Hopefully we can be a stronger piece of the economy now," Veltkamp said.

Silver was discovered here when prospector Noah Kellogg's mule kicked over a shiny rock of ore in 1885. People rushed in, and the Silver Valley once employed 4,200 people in mining.

Then the bottom fell out of the industry. Mines laid off workers, and the Bunker Hill smelter closed. According to the Idaho Department of Labor, Shoshone County's population fell 28 percent in the 1980s as people left to find work. But in the past few years population is slowly growing again, topping 13,000 in 2006.

Also, the pollution caused by decades of mining was removed over the years by a massive Superfund cleanup. That left Kellogg a nearly clean slate to rebuild upon.

While tourism was getting most of the attention, the community added 200 mining jobs in the past year, bringing the total to 705. That's about twice what it was at the lowest point in 2003. But these jobs pay an average of $57,000 a year, huge by local standards.

By contrast, the 470 tourism jobs average about $10,000 a year in pay, state numbers show.

"It's most drastically higher in mining," said Norma Douglas, head of the Silver Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Mining produces the kind of steady work force that buys homes and incorporates into the community, compared to more transient tourism workers, she said.

"Those dollars stay here day in and day out," she said.

The number and quality of tourism jobs is expected to improve as the company that owns Silver Mountain continues an aggressive expansion plan.

Jeld-Wen Communities already has built nearly 300 posh condos in town and is building the golf development. There are plans to expand the ski area with new lifts and an additional ski village across town.

"We will become a national destination for year-round family fun," said Jeff Colburn, general manager of the resort.

Mining is also expected to remain a factor in the economy.

Hopper believes the mining rebound will continue.

"It has all the appearances it will be ongoing and sustainable," Hopper said.

Veltkamp said the 65-year-old Lucky Friday Mine has greater silver reserves than have been removed over the years and could be expanded and operated for decades.

"We expect a very long life at the Lucky Friday, even if prices dip," she said.

Hecla, which was down to 50 employees at the mine a few years ago, now employs 265 there and is doing a major study to determine if it should expand production to take advantage of the high prices.

Decker said the new boom in mining took much longer to arrive than expected.

"All the economists were telling us for years that prices were going to go up," Decker said.

Everyone is happy the boom finally arrived, he said.

"I've been here for 30 years, through hard times and good times both," Decker said. "Anything that is good for the whole valley, people are for."

As skilled miners move to town for the new jobs, they are bumping into one ugly reality of the tourism growth. Home prices have doubled or more in recent years, often topping $150,000. The modest old homes that miners traditionally owned have been snapped up and turned into vacation rentals.

"They are having some sticker shock," Douglas said of the new workers.

Some of new businesses in town are also more geared to tourists.

Shirley Tinder, owner of the Espresso Barn in Kellogg, said most of her business is generated through travelers, in part because miners go to work earlier than she opens. But the town is more bustling with renewed work in the mines.

"It's hopping a little more," she said.