Sandy Maki looked out at rows of workstations, all of which have been empty since this spring.
“There’s usually about 35 people in here at a time with supervisors to assist,” she said.
She’s the managing supervisor here, at Global Response in downtown Iron River.
Maki is used to seeing and hearing up to 5,000 incoming calls a day to her call center employees.
“Sometimes you hear people [say], ‘Thank you for calling.’ They end a call, and they’re right on to, ‘Thank you for calling,’ starting a new one. Sometimes it can be back to back,” she said.
Global Response isn’t a telemarketing agency, but it handles incoming customer service calls for companies like clothing retailer Lane Bryant.
“We’ve done everything from Metropolitan Museum of Art to American Eagle clothing, Ecko shoes,” Maki said.
But in March, as COVID-19 forced Michigan to shut down many workplaces, Maki helped pack up computers and headsets to have her staff work from home.
She had no choice but to lay off the workers who couldn’t get good enough broadband internet to work from home, a major issue in rural communities in the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin.
Enter the Northern Michigan University Educational Access Network (EAN).
“Just this year, we finished building all of the towers that we needed in the U.P. I think we have 70, 72 installations,” said Derek Hall, a spokesperson for Northern Michigan University.
The towers provide low-cost fixed-wireless internet within a nine-mile range. The program is designed to aid schools and students, but is also available to the general public.
A new transmitter, perched on the school in Iron River, went live within the past two months.
“The state and the federal government are interested in different ways to solve the rural broadband issue, and this is our way of doing it,” Hall said.
In the last few weeks, Sandy Maki was able to hire 31 new call center employees, some of them dependent on the new EAN. Many of those people might not otherwise be able to work at home for Global Response.
Maki feels she’s called to make a difference in lives. She worked in the medical field before her 13 years at Global Response, where she helps people in a different way.
“Coming into something like this, I can help people get jobs. I can make differences in individuals’ lives that way,” she said.
Jobs in the community were always the goal for Jim Cederna, an Iron River native.
His corporate business career took him all over, but a decade and a half ago, he saw his hometown needed help. The mining industry had left years in the past, and the economy was struggling.
“I spent a number of years talking to people. What can you put in the middle of nowhere, where there’s no market, where you can be competitive, where people will pay money to have you do something for them,” Cederna said. “Eventually, I came across, through my network, a person who said, call centers.”
The seed was planted.
Call centers need internet, a workforce without language accents, and a home.
“We had to have a building,” Cederna said. “For our town, we have lots of empty buildings.”
Within a few years, Florida-based Global Response opened an outpost in the old Iron River bank, where it still is today. Apparently, former mining towns make attractive spots for call centers. Delta Air Lines employs hundreds of people in northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.
Cederna marvels that the call center worked out in Iron River, and that the jobs followed.
“They could put in any place in the world, if they wanted. They choose to have it here. That’s a pretty big deal,” he said.
Cederna figures, over its lifespan, the center has brought millions of dollars of economic activity to Iron River. Managers admit starting pay at Global Response isn’t all that high, but they say the benefits are good, and, after all, it’s a job, in a place where that’s sometimes a challenge.
“Our number one export from these small towns in the North is our talented children,” Cederna said. “There’s no employment for our children. They’ve got to go someplace else in the world to work. We need more of these things, where our number one asset can stay here. At least give them an option.”
That’s the attitude Mark Bromley wants to hear.
“There’s a great story here, a great story to be told,” he said.
Bromley heads Iron County’s economic development and chamber alliance. He came out of retirement to take the job, saying, “it’s that important to me.”
He points to the area’s recreational activities, its cost of living, its expanding broadband. No, COVID-19 hasn’t been a positive, but maybe it’s a catalyst for more work from home in Iron County, like for those Global Response employees.
“It created an opportunity and it shows how people and organizations and cities and towns can adapt,” Bromley said.
Businesses like Global Response and more access to broadband lead Maki, Cederna, and Bromley to believe in an Iron River on the rise, changing with the times.
“When you have so many people that are interested in seeing things improve, and are willing to put in some of the time and effort to get it done, it’s going to move in the right direction,” Bromley said.