Economic diversification on Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range has been a hot topic ever since I learned how to spell those words, and surely long before that.
The darnedest thing about the subject is that most folks will support the concept of diversification, but fewer will accept a role in making it happen. This is only amplified by what is, despite recent downturns and a steady reduction in overall jobs, an otherwise durable iron mining industry. (For now).
What is it, exactly, we on the Iron Range are supposed to do?
Sometimes a fresh set of eyes can see new angles.
Three student researchers from Macalester College in St. Paul, Alyssa Erding, Ethan Howard, and Jack McCarthy, recently compared Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range to other current or former mining regions across the United States. Their comparisons included western Colorado, eastern Kentucky and western North Carolina.
After a summer of interviews and research, they’ve now produced a website called “Resilient Range,” focused on “Ideas for Economic Resilience in the Iron Range.”
While no website is a cure-all for the economic imbalance of a whole region, this trio’s conclusions about how the Range can create a more resilient, diverse economy capture in a moment what some (including me) have spewed out as thousands of words of copy.
In addition to some interesting data comparisons between the Range, and specific regions in Colorado, Kentucky and North Carolina, the researchers note three themes in how regions can break out of negative, boom-and-bust cycles.
Entrepreneurship and Leadership
“Although frequently romanticized, there is no one charismatic leader, inspired mayor, or benevolent CEO who will emerge and lead everyone to a better future. Leaders will not be brought in, they will be cultivated locally and will work as a community to create change.”
In rural Colorado, arguably the most successful of the former or waning mining regions, Erding, Howard and McCarthy found many examples of this.
Revitalizing Downtown Areas
Having attended many a meeting in my time about this very topic, it seems revitalizing downtowns might be a no brainer. But for many city councils — including most on the Iron Range — attention continues to be paid to the edges of town, not the interior. As my friend Chuck Marohn points out, this is a losing strategy for small towns with limited resources.
“Creating an area that people want to be in inherently creates a draw for businesses to develop there, and when businesses develop in an area, it draws people there,” wrote the research team. “In other words, downtown revitalization creates a positive feedback cycle that supports economic development and a more resilient Iron Range.”
Looking at western North Carolina counties, they found that successful regions all had cities with vibrant downtowns, which improved quality of life for residents and attracted tourists.
Collaboration and Communication
“The towns in the Iron Range are connected by their economic dependency on natural resources and their economic struggle to pursue more resilient forms of economic development,” write the Macalester students. “Working together to solve these common issues is the path to a more stable future for the region.”
For me, this goal is one of the most obvious and yet most elusive for Range towns. When the region spans 135 miles, and contains several small fiefdoms of political power and social influence, Rangers just aren’t talking to each other enough. We pour resources into duplication. We compete against each other, when a strategy of attraction would be far more effective.
I met with Erding, Howard and McCarthy last month and some of my comments are included in their research. They’re all undergraduates, with majors ranging from environmental policy and economics to geology. This was an independent project completed through the Educating Sustainability Ambassadors program within the Institute for Global Citizenship at Macalester College. Though their project was hosted by the Friends of the Boundary Waters, an organization heavily involved in the nonferrous mining debate in Northern Minnesota, they stress that their interest was in exploring economic diversification, not arguing for or against mining.
But that illustrates an important point. In a deeply conflicted political environment, isn’t a shared goal more valuable? Encouraging leaders and entrepreneurs, revitalizing communities and improving collaboration among Range towns are noble goals, no matter what’s printed on the political sign in your yard.
Fresh eyes can yield new perspective. It’s up to us to listen and work together in areas where there is agreement. In this fashion, economic momentum can become economic success and, eventually, economic resilience.
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. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, July 31, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.