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Exclusive: Moving To Cook County. Part 1: Why Cook County?

Nov 15, 2021 06:08AM ● By Editor

Photo: Wikipedia

Editor's Note: This is the first story in a three part series chronicling the reasons people are drawn to and have decided to move to Cook County and the benefits, opportunities and challenges they face.

By Rae Poynter, Exclusive to Boreal Community Media - November 15, 2021

When the numbers from the 2020 census were released, they showed a continuation of the trend toward urbanization, with fewer Americans calling rural areas home. This trend was true in Minnesota: within Northeastern Minnesota specifically, the majority of counties in this mostly-rural region either held a stable population or lost residents. 

A notable exception? Cook County. 

Between 2010 and 2020, Cook County grew by 8.2 percentage points, the most significant growth in the region. As many who live in the area would attest, there has been a continually growing interest in Cook County, both as a vacation destination and as a potential place to live--a growing interest that has accelerated since the Covid-19 pandemic. 

So what is it that draws people to Cook County while other rural counties lose residents? And what do these changes mean for the community, for longtime and new residents alike?

Why Cook County?

For Kris and Jill Barber, their move to Cook County stemmed from years of vacationing in the area and falling more in love with Lake Superior and her surrounding forests each time. They were so captivated by the area, in fact, that they hardly visited anywhere else. 

In the lead-up to their move in 2018, Kris was working as a production supervisor, while Jill worked for a tech company. Kris was becoming more unsatisfied with his work, and said that he came to dread packing up and going back to the Cities after each vacation. But luckily for the Barbers, two things happened: Cook County got widespread broadband internet, and Jill’s job became more accepting of a virtual workforce. Kris quit his job, they sold their house, and made the move to the North Shore. 

Kris and Jill Barber moved to Grand Marais in 2018.  Photo: The Barbers

 As several studies have shown, the introduction of reliable, fast internet to an area is tied with economic growth. For Cook County, the addition of broadband enabled families like the Barbers, who would not have otherwise been able to move, to live and work in the area. Kris Barber’s experience with outdoor recreation led to him finding a job at Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply before deciding to branch out on his own.

“Between my flexibility and Kris’s misery we made it work,” Jill Barber said.

For Alex Blust, who moved to Cook County in April 2021, an internship at North House Folk School brought her to the area, but upon arriving she decided to stay after the internship ends. Blust had worked in housing-related nonprofits and city government in the Twin Cities before deciding to make a change and work in carpentry. She did a number of immersive job experiences throughout her twenties, and when she heard about the North House internship it sounded like the perfect fit.

“There’s such a richness to life in the Cities, but it was also stressful and loud,” she said. “I’m so drawn to the woods and nature, and arriving in Grand Marais felt like a breath of fresh air, and what I needed at this time in my life.”

Becoming Part of the Community

For Jill Barber, it was a big adjustment to working online in a remote location, and in a community where she knew almost nobody. 

“I’m a blend of introvert and extrovert, but when we first moved my extrovert side wasn’t getting fed,” she said. 

She decided to volunteer at a ski race at Pincushion Mountain, and ended up meeting people who helped her get connected with others who were interested in similar activities like kayaking, biking, and running. (It even led to her getting connected with the Cook County Whole Foods Co-op, where she serves on the Board of Directors.) She and Kris noted how many opportunities Grand Marais has for such a small town: from curling to theater and dance to writing groups.

“You have to make an effort to put yourself out there, but when you do the community embraces you,” she said. 

Robert Svaleson is another newer resident of Cook County who found volunteering a key way to get involved in the community. Now a County Commissioner, Svaleson moved to Cook County in the spring of 2018. Drawn to the area by a love of the outdoors, he had previously lived in Illinois and had a career in the electrical utility industry, working specifically in nuclear energy generation.

Cook County District One Commissioner Bob Svaleson.  Photo: Cook County MN

“My previous work was very time-demanding, and I felt like I wasn’t as engaged in my community as I wanted to be,” he said. “When I moved here I wanted to become part of the community, and one of the best ways to get connected is to get involved and help out.”

Svaleson became a volunteer for the Hovland fire department and Fire Wise, and joined the ambulance crew at North Shore Health, where he does transports to Duluth, the Twin Cities, and North Dakota. As he became more involved in the community, he became more aware of the various activities in Cook County, and decided to run for the open District 1 Commissioner position, which he won.

“One thing I heard when running for office was that people were concerned that I would want to change things. People from urban areas are drawn to the natural beauty here, but sometimes they show up and want to change things, and want more conveniences,” Svaleson said. “I value what we have here, and I think it’s important to not move up here thinking that you’ll change the area to be more like where you came from.”

Editor's Note: In the next article in our series 'Moving to Cook County', we explore The Housing Question.

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