In Silver Bay, speaking your mind is dangerous business

Whatever the outcome of the ongoing debate over whether Minnesota should allow the operation of a massive copper mine in northeastern Minnesota, it’s not going to rest on whether Bent Paddle Beer is sold at the municipal liquor store in Silver Bay.

But it made the Silver Bay City Council feel better a couple of weeks ago when it voted to ban the sale of the beer, punishing the brewery’s owners for opposing the project on environmental grounds. Three council members said they feared their entire store would be boycotted if they stocked the brew.

The tantrum is a sad reminder of the state of public debate these days. It’s not enough that two sides of an issue can have a principled argument for its belief. One side has to pay for having one.

On Monday night, co-owners Laura Mullen, Colin Mullen, and Bryon Tonnis appeared before the Silver Bay City Council. Their statement was posted today on The Growler.

Water is our most precious resource, and those aren’t just pretty words — ask the residents of Flint, Michigan or drought-stricken California. These are places that put their faith into big multi-national companies and trusted governmental oversight to protect them. Closer to home, we as taxpayers are right now paying millions for cleanup on the contaminated brownfields along our St. Louis River. Where are those big businesses now?

While it is easier for businesses like ours not to weigh in on divisive topics like this, we felt it our duty to add a voice of commerce to the debate that had been percolating. Even if the proposed project or projects were to go through, we wanted to be a part of the discussion that strengthened protections for our watershed, the BWCA, which is so central to our state’s uniqueness and our brand, and Lake Superior.

From our vantage point, we are neighbors that have a difference in opinion about our neighborhood. There are known risks to this project and at the end of the day this whole debate is separated by risk tolerance. For you and your community it is certainly worth the risk this style of mining lays out to add good paying jobs.

People need jobs to feel safe and secure for their families. We understand this and truly feel for you and your communities, but for us, the potential risk to our water source gives us reason to be concerned and speak up to be the best stewards of our employees, our brand, and our community as a whole.

They said they’re pro-mining and pro-union, having hired only union labor in the business’ construction.

But the City Council and Iron Range bars wanted nothing less than to put the brewery out of business.

When this controversy first began, our first action was to get into our car and drive to every store and bar struggling under pressure to drop our product on the Range. We drove. We listened. We explained.

While these accounts don’t represent huge sales volumes, it’s the relationships that truly matter to us. We want to take this time to thank those business owners who did not succumb to the pressure of a few and who believe in the free market by keeping our Northland-made beer on their shelves and menus.

We also want to do everything in our power to help the Range and this region with the job insecurity that has been so prevalent in the traditional mining communities of our state.

Please know that Bent Paddle will be right beside you as we demand action from our Northeast Minnesota policymakers and seek real, long-lasting, sustainable economic diversification for our region so we can all continue to live, work, and play here without fear of what tomorrow will lend.

The council did not rescind the boycott, so the beer remains off the shelves in the town where it’s bad business to speak your mind.