It was a real number, an imbalance of costs and assets, that caused Zimmy’s to close last week to the surprise of many who didn’t know the struggles facing Linda Stroback and Bob Hocking’s charming restaurant and bar on Hibbing’s historic Howard Street. And there are real numbers at stake in the fate of the VFW Club across town, another important cultural site that is slipping away from the community due to economic strife.
Real numbers are unfolding north of town at Hibbing Taconite, where robust production in 2014 is belied by the fact that the Iron Range taconite industry is girding for another adjustment, another contraction the next time prices drop. If you can look past the rosy press releases, you can see the gathering clouds in the North American steel industry. A mill in Canada shut down. A mine in Michigan hovering near shutdown. We hope for the best. Hope is not a plan, however. Hope is not a source of heat, food or income.
Even if iron ore production continues at current levels for 10 years or 20, a wave of sophisticated new technology will further automate the process of mining. Fewer and fewer (although higher paid) people will be needed to turn our rocks into taconite (or copper, or anything you please), leaving an even bigger hole in the economy. The raw materials might sift into money, but not for all of us. Not for most of us.
Many still think Hibbing Taconite is the west central Iron Range’s biggest employer, but truth is Hibbing’s medical sector employs far more. Simply, we have an aging population that needs more medical care than it does software development or poetry slams. Like just about everyone who lives on the Iron Range, I can count dozens of family members and even more friends working at the hospital, clinics or assisted living facilities of our region.
The medical industry serves people who are sick, or who need care. The Iron Range is sick. We do need care, and not just the kind that comes with IVs and better nutrition. We need economic care and leadership unlike any seen since WWII if we are to make the jump from a region watching itself crumble to one that rebuilds itself for a new century.
At this point my words might sound dire. How negative! Can’t he see what’s good in our community? Well, of course I can, and that is where hope can be turned into a plan.
Across the Iron Range we have things that other communities would die to have: proximity to natural beauty, unique and fascinating landscapes carved by mining, tightly built communities that could be revitalized from their center outward; empty lots for art, development and green space.
More important, we have some good years of taconite revenue ahead of us. Some wise leaders in our past guaranteed that some of this money will stay in our communities. So we can build a modern tech infrastructure to grow the next economy — one based on people’s work and innovation, not just rich man’s land and mineral rights. We can bill ourselves as a great northern land of opportunity, welcome outsiders and their differences, push past the dying chorus of self-defeat and intolerance.
We often look to the European immigrants of 100 years ago for inspiration. For many of us, these were our ancestors. But those folks didn’t come here to mine. They mined, sure, but they came here to build a life in America. To prove themselves. To give something to their children that they could never afford to buy. They didn’t do this to have their great-grandchildren wait for someone else to fix their problems.
Northern Minnesota owes as much to its original inhabitants as it does to its immigrants. Ojibwa people, or Dakota before that, knew that this land was where the game and the rice were plentiful. They knew that a good life for many generations was available for all willing to survive the cold winters, work the bountiful spring and fall, and enjoy the heavenly summers.
No one in our history succeeded by standing idly by amid challenges. Nor should we.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. You can hear the next show Saturday, March 22, broadcast live at 5 p.m. from Mesabi Range College in Virginia, Minnesota. Call 800-662-5799 to reserve free tickets to join the live studio audience. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, March 16, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.