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Exploring new economic and cultural prospects, Iron Range seeks life beyond mining

“The secret to success is making places where people want to live,” says Aaron J. Brown, 35, who lives near Grand Rapids. He’s skeptical of “boom chasers, smokestack chasers, these big things that promise to put 100 guys in work clothes.”

Photo by Jay Walljasper
The Will Steger Wilderness Center, founded near Ely by the celebrated polar explorer, is the site of one of Minnesota’s first and largest renewable power grids — a next generation energy system.

First of three articles

The McKnight Foundation commissioned writer Jay Walljasper to do a series of reports looking at the prospects and challenges in Minnesota’s 80 counties outside the metro area. This is the first of three articles drawn from his latest report, “Northeast Minnesota: New Possibilities in the North Country.” His report on Southeast Minnesota is available here

The Iron Range seems caught in a 1980s flashback as taconite plants are idled and debates rage about “jobs vs. the environment.” And there’s no rosy glow of nostalgia about it. The region still bears scars from the free fall of the mining industry 30 years ago as well as bitter battles over establishing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Today it’s copper, nickel and possibly gold mining that’s stirring emotions, not the closing of some of Minnesota’s 10,000+ lakes to motorboats. But to some residents, it feels like another example of environmentalists imposing limits on their livelihoods. Meanwhile, other residents see a danger to their region’s lakes, groundwater, health and economy from this new mining, which, unlike iron-ore extraction, can create poisonous acids. Each side points to supposedly benign or calamitous consequences from sulfide mining elsewhere in the United States.

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Nearly 2,000 miners have been laid off since last March. The suspended production at taconite plants has heightened fury over PolyMet‘s proposed copper-nickel mine, which the Canadian developer says will eventually produce 350 permanent jobs for approximately 20 years. Many argue that the layoffs, even if temporary, make it imperative to create new mining jobs. Many others believe this bad news means the region must redouble its efforts to move beyond the vulnerability of a boom-and-bust economy — and worry that the health and ecological threats posed by sulfide mining dim prospects for cultivating new industries.

Not your father’s Iron Range

As important as mining is to some communities here, Northeastern Minnesota is a vastly different place from what it was 30 years ago. In the six-county area encompassing the Iron Range, mining accounted for only 12 percent of the economy (less than health care at 13 percent), according to a 2012 study from the IMPLAN group cited in a report [PDF] from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB), a state economic development agency. Taken together, tourism (5 percent) and timber (3 percent), both of which depend on a healthy environment, provided two-thirds as much economic activity as mining.

Grand Rapids on the edge of the Mesabi Range, for instance, has enthusiastically embraced the arts and healthy living in a push to attract and keep families. Crosby-Ironton sees “gold in them thar iron pits” as mountain bicyclists converge to pedal steep, wooded hillsides at the state-of-the-art Cuyuna State Mountain Bike Trail System and Recreation Area.

Courtesy of Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown

“The secret to success is making places where people want to live,” declares Aaron J. Brown, a prolific 35-year-old blogger who lives near Grand Rapids and describes his beat as “Modern Life in Northern Minnesota.”

Brown is skeptical of what he calls “boom chasers, smokestack chasers, these big things that promise to put 100 guys in work clothes.” This is based on a lifetime of seeing such plans fall short of the mark. “If you want to spend money on economic development, spend it on making the town a better place to live. If you want to make your town attractive to business, make it attractive. Look at how to make the schools better. These have not been the highest priority.”

Love it and find a way not to leave it

This corner of Minnesota is famed for the feisty cultural mix forged by working-class Slavs, Italians, Finns, Scandinavians, French Canadians, Irish, Jews and Greeks who settled wherever mining companies opened up rich veins of ore for excavation. Even today, some communities here seem more like Old World villages than Midwestern towns.

Courtesy of Roy Smith
Roy Smith

Yet iron no longer defines the region, just as milling hasn’t defined Minneapolis since the 1930s. Employment in the mining industry was about 4,200 before the recent round of layoffs, according to Roy Smith, director of talent development at IRRRB. That’s down from 15,000 in 1979. The reasons are numerous, including “steel dumping” (exporting steel at artificially low prices to gain market share) by China and Australia, as well as automation.

“Mining, with its peaks and valleys, will continue to play a big role in the region,” Smith said, noting that each mining job translates into additional jobs for the region. “But the most valuable asset that we have is the skill set of people in the mining and timber industries,” which can be valuable to other industries coming in.

The IRRRB’s focus is “education-based economic development.” That means making sure the Range continues to produce highly trained workers by partnering with business and industry to create training programs at colleges of the Northeast Higher Education District (NHED).

“There are now a host of two-year, four-year, and master’s degree opportunities for people living in the region,” said Smith, pointing to Iron Range Engineering, a new “project-based” program created by NHED and Minnesota State Mankato that allows Range students to earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering close to home.

“The program produces approximately 25 highly skilled engineers who graduate with industry experience built in as part of the program,” Smith explained. “They have a placement rate over 95 percent with the vast majority choosing to stay in the region.”

He contrasted this with his own experience. “When I graduated from Hibbing High School in 1981, everyone got a diploma and set of luggage because it was expected you’d leave.” And Smith did head west to Nevada for 20 years before returning home “to work on the issues that caused me to leave in the first place.”

“We’re born with this homing chip, which brings us back home to the Range,” he joked, highlighting one of the chief traits of the region — an intense pride of place — which can be a liability as well as a key asset. “A lot of people say things are fine here, and don’t need to change,” Smith said.

Aaron Brown, who grew up near Eveleth, observed, “Many people here want the good old days back and can’t accept new ideas coming from people who don’t hunt or fish or mine.”

Brown offered his own recommendations for reviving the Iron Range’s economy:

  • High speed broadband Internet is ubiquitous in towns and the country.
  • Schools prepare children to think critically with an eye for entrepreneurship and creativity.
  • Dying businesses, groups, and organizations are allowed to die, creating space for new ones to take over.
  • Empty buildings and spaces are used for low-cost business incubation and community improvement efforts. City councils focus on the guts of their towns, not the edges.
  • Spending is focused mostly on small projects with specific, permanent community outcomes.
Courtesy of Jessalyn Sabin
Jessalyn Sabin

Jessalyn Sabin, 26, cochair of ReGen, a forum for young professionals dedicated to attracting young talent to the Range and keeping them, observed, “People here ask you who your grandparents are. That sense of community is a strength in many ways but can also make it hard for people moving in.”

An iron miner’s daughter from Side Lake, Sabin moved back from Duluth to teach biology at Hibbing Community College and can identify with newcomers. “People have been leaving here since the time of Bob Dylan. That’s part of why we have the oldest population on average in the state. We need to create a more inclusive culture that welcomes people, including revitalizing the downtowns so people have a place to gather and meet.”

ReGen surveyed its members about the Iron Range’s strengths and challenges. Among the positives were proximity to family, the outdoors, a low cost of living, and increased career options at local colleges. What’s needed most: more child care, arts and culture, places to hang out besides bars, and jobs for trailing spouses.

Grand Rapids on the move

With a paper mill towering over its downtown and a five-lane highway bisecting it, Grand Rapids is not postcard picturesque. But unlike most Range towns, it is seeing modest population gains. A stroll downtown debunks stereotypes about rural Minnesota being moribund or behind the times. The MacRostie Art Center offers a gallery, well-curated gift shop, studios, and classrooms for budding artists of all ages in a storefront down the block from Bender’s Shoes (since 1973) and Brier Clothing (since 1937). Across the street, a handsome old school now houses a vintage store, a spa, and craft shops.

A well-stocked bookshop, an organic foods market, and a bike shop are all found nearby along with the engaging Itasca County Historical Society Museum, which has an exhibit chronicling local-girl-makes-good Frances Gumm (aka Judy Garland). The adjacent Mississippi riverfront features a walking trail, a striking new public library, an amphitheater, and KAXE 91.7 FM, the nation’s first rural public radio station, which has been giving voice to Northeast Minnesota’s independent spirit since 1976.

Across the river from the downtown lies another hub of activity, the Itasca County Family YMCA, which spearheads an ambitious community health collaborative, Get Fit Itasca. “What’s unique is that it’s a cooperative effort — the YMCA, Itasca Public Health Department, Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, the City of Grand Rapids, the Blandin Foundation, Itasca Area Schools, the City of LaPrairie, and more,” said Meghan Bown, director of the program.

The project aims to create a culture of health through walking clubs, new bike lanes (which earned it honors as a Bike Friendly Community from the League of American Bicyclists), new walking routes, sidewalk improvements, a Safe Routes to School program for kids, mountain biking and ski trails, community fitness classes, a community garden, and increased access to healthy foods at schools and in workplaces. The Y has become a place where all ages come together, from kids in the after-school programs to seniors taking part in ElderCircle.

“My mom will come for a morning class and stay until two, playing cards and getting some soup at the café,” Bown reports.

With an economy based on timber more than mining, Grand Rapids currently has an economic advantage over its Iron Range neighbors, but its openness to new initiatives is another reason for its growth.  

Prototyping the future at Will Steger’s Wilderness Center

While Northeast Minnesota struggles with economic uncertainty in its legacy industry — mining — the potential of a dawning industry is being demonstrated in a remote corner of the Iron Range.

The Will Steger Wilderness Center, founded near Ely by the celebrated polar explorer, is the site of one of Minnesota’s first and largest renewable power grids — a next generation energy system providing all the facility’s electricity with solar (and eventually wind and biomass) power. The whole complex, which includes five buildings and a five-story conference center under construction, is powered by a state-of-the-art network of solar panels manufactured in Bloomington by Ten K Solar, as well as battery packs.

The system currently generates 10 to 12 kilowatts of power, with plans to ramp up to 20 to 30 kilowatts. It was installed by Sundial Solar of Minneapolis in partnership with the University of St. Thomas School of Engineering and Cummins Power Generation. Students from the University of St. Thomas and Anoka-Ramsey Community College are studying the power grid’s operations.

“The whole idea is that it is a demonstration project to show that [power grids] can be done,” explained Sundial CEO Jon Kramer. “It blows my mind what we’re doing.” Future plans call for using solar panels that will be manufactured by Silicon Energy in the nearby town of Mountain Iron.

The Wilderness Center encompasses Steger’s home, the lodge where all his polar expeditions were plotted, housing for staff and interns, a wood workshop, and the architecturally stunning conference center. Conceived by Steger during a prolonged blizzard on a dogsled expedition across Antarctica and built over the past 25 years mostly by apprentices working with master craftspeople, the conference center will bring together small groups of business, political, and citizen leaders to brainstorm solutions to critical environmental and social problems. The renewable power grid, Steger explains, will remind meeting participants about all that’s possible.

The center — which looks like an amalgam of a ski lodge, Gothic cathedral and solarium — is 85 percent complete and will host a pilot symposium about clean energy this fall, according to Steger.

Looking ahead

There’s little doubt that layoffs in the mining industry pose major problems for Northeast Minnesota in the near future, and likely much longer. Jobs paying $80,000 to $90,000 on average won’t be simple to replace. The threat of mine shutdowns has loomed over the region since at least 1941, when the state founded the IRRRB to spur other economic opportunities. Seventy-five years later, that task remains as urgent as ever. 

No silver pickax has been discovered that will effortlessly provide bountiful wages to thousands of blue-collar workers. Continued prosperity depends on digging deep into the region’s assets beyond ore in the ground. This means natural beauty, community pride, cultural traditions, renewable resources of the forests and waters, a robust work ethic, a hardy entrepreneurial drive, and the unique appeal and social solidarity of a place like no other in the country.     

Friday: How Duluth bounced back.

Jay Walljasper author of “The Great Neighborhood Book” and Urban Writer-in-Residence at Augsburg College — writes extensively on community-building, economic development and social issues. His website is