Iron Range hope more vital than nostalgia

Disc brakes on a 240-ton haul truck. (PHOTO: Roy Luck, Flickr CC)

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

On the Mesabi Iron Range, our society rests upon the achievements of this region’s fading youth. We speak of our ancestors’ hungry demand for better working conditions and pay. We memorialize their desire to build schools and small towns to elevate humans from the morass. Yes, we call this history and print it on our signs.

But what are we doing to improve the working conditions and pay of a majority of the people who live here now? How will we raise people from the maw of an economy that chews them up?

For some, the answer is in somehow accelerating the slow progress of a fickle, volatile and increasingly automated mining industry.

I find this answer lacking. It’s an easy thing to say, and requires little more than stomping our feet. Yes, we sit on minerals. Yes, the world needs them. But mining minerals, even new ones, will not single-handedly fix our region’s economy. There just aren’t enough jobs there. That’s presuming these new companies find financing and stay open more than 20 years, neither of which is assured. I say let the miners mine, but most of us will still be left behind.

This is bad news. Because this means that the solution to our problem is hard. Very hard. Further, it is unfortunately true that outside forces are unlikely to help us. We bear this load. That’s why I’m glad to report progress underway.

Last month, the Iron Range Makerspace held its grand opening at its new location along Highway 169 in Hibbing. Filling the long vacant former VFW club space, this makers’ laboratory provides its members access to expensive mechanical and design equipment. For a small fee, you can use 3D printers, metal lathes, advanced design software, artistic materials, wood working tools and more. These are the tools of entrepreneurs and job creation, made available to those who have more ideas than money.

Like many small towns, Iron Range downtowns suffer from the loss of their retail base and traffic. Districts that once reflected the beating heart of our communities now seem forgotten relics crumbling into sand. But efforts underway in Hibbing, Chisholm and Virginia provide hope.

Volunteer driven task forces have assembled in these towns to dress up empty storefronts. Entrepreneurs in Virginia are flipping old buildings into useful modern spaces. Chisholm plans a new vision for young professionals living within its borders. Hibbing’s Dylan Project has decorated downtown with new art, and a reminder that this region inspires greatness in its offspring. The downtown Borealis Art Guild in Hibbing increases its programming and presence.

Amid a drone of social media complaints and the lamentations of leadership obsessed with the way things used to be, hard working Iron Rangers work tirelessly to make a new world on top of the old. These are your saints and poets, your builders and makers. These are the people worthy of press and attention.

This reminds of the old spiritual axiom that we must accept what we can’t change, change what we can, and know the difference. We can’t change what national corporations do, but we can control our purchases, our time and our support. We can’t change that today’s miner does the work of 10 miners a generation ago. So we capitalize on our knowledge and persistence.

If some find pleasure in pitting our future against that of our state’s metropolitan region, so be it. I too have chosen to live here, not there, for reasons familiar to most reading this column. And if your ideology leads you to despise regulation, the Clean Air Act, or anything so much as whispered by a self-described “environmentalist,” well, our country allows you to hold and even shout those beliefs.

But do not be fooled. Regulation kills far fewer jobs than apathy, shrinking demographics and opposition to market and cultural change. For decades, we’ve failed to seed new crops. We now reap an empty harvest.

Listen to our young people. Not just your kid, but other kids. Poor kids. Kids without connections. Kids like I was, growing up on the junkyard out in Zim. If you listen, they talk about a future beyond what they see around them. They want more than the same job mom or dad had. They want a world that provides options and opportunity.

The cold fact is that our region needs people: workers, customers, students and entrepreneurs. We need more people than we can produce. Hardly our enemies, people who live elsewhere will one day enrich this region by becoming part of it. We can invite them. Or we can wait for our fresh water, cheap real estate, and drought-free environment to attract them independently. They will come. We might be in rough shape. We might be dead. But they will come. The only thing we can resist is our ability to accept and influence the inevitable change.

We must expand the meaning of the honorable title, Iron Ranger.

The first half of life we spend fighting self-centered urges. The second half we spend fighting nostalgia for the past. We are not assured of winning either battle. Many don’t bother fighting at all. Still, human and spiritual progress only happens when enough people do.

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 16, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

 

Comments

  1. Bill Hansen says:

    Very well said. It isn’t about “us versus them.” It’s about being mindful of how we adapt to a new world. I thought this op-ed was particularly interesting, especially considering the source: http://www.startribune.com/we-re-at-the-dawn-of-the-fourth-industrial-revolution/426021293/

  2. DEAN JONES says:

    I MOVED AWAY FROM GRAND RAPIDS IN 1980 AND HAVE LIVED IN COLORADO SPRINGSS AND IN CHATTANOOGA, TN. I’VE OBSERVED THAT A REGIONS GREATEST RESOURCE IS NOT IT’S NATURAL RESOURCES BUT ITS PEOPLE. THE REASON GRAND RAPIDS AND THE WEST RANGE HAVE FARED BETTER THAN HIBBING AND VIRGINIA IS THAT INSTEAD OF DEPENDING OM STRICTLY MINING OR PAPERMAKING, LOCAL LEADERS SAW THE “HANDWRITING ON THE WALL” CONCERNING FADING INDUSTRIES AND WERE ABLE TO ADAPT TO NEW BUSINESSES AND INDUSTRIES AND EDUCATE CHILDREN ACCORDINGLY. RESEARCH THE TRENDS, EDUCATE ACCORDINGLY AND WORK HARD TO BRING YOUR DREAM TO PASS. DON’T WAIT ON A GOVERNMENT HANDOUT. TAKE CHARGE OF YOUR OWN DESTINY. CREATE YOUR OWN SUCCESS STORY!

  3. I found the MPR hosted day in Ely last Thurs. to be interesting. We hear so much negativity about Ely’s great decline. But a lot of the people interviewed were saying the opposite–they moved to Ely because they love it, the schools are good, the sports and other activities are good, the school population is growing, store fronts are being rejuvenated, there are a number of thriving small businesses, there’s an active arts community, and the people work together in small town fashion. Who are these positive people? Well, most sounded fairly young, enthusiastic, and female.
    We never hear this side of Ely in the media–only the grumbling narrative about outsiders coming in to tell us what to do when the only thing we do here is mining–even though there is no mining in Ely.
    Somehow we have to let that old narrative go and start looking forward rather than backward.

    • Independent says:

      Don’t be so sure. The city of Ely has dozens of businesses for sale and the tourism jobs there pay less than a living wage with little to no benefits. Ely and the tourism industry their are in decline.

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