2020 Hindsight: Revisiting the future of our past

Three images from the viewing stand overlooking the operations of Hibbing Taconite. The land bridge you see in 2017 was completed that year so that active mining could consume the old Hull Rust mineview. Thus, the very ground from which these pictures were taken no longer exists. The heart of the original village of Hibbing, Minnesota, was physically located a few hundred feet above the shovel rig you see in the 2013 picture. The town began to move in 1917, with buildings relocated well into the 1950s. (PHOTOS: Aaron J. Brown)
Aaron J. Brown

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

This is the first of a two-part series.

Look around. Somehow we’ve stumbled into the year 2020. We write 2020 on our paperwork. We gird for a 2020 election season that seems anything but futuristic or forward-thinking. In short, 2020 seems nothing like the sci-fi utopia of our dreams. And, frankly, I feel ripped off.

I think I know why.

In 1998, the Hibbing Daily Tribune published a special section called “2020 Vision.” The staff of the newspaper interviewed people from our area about trends and predictions for the year 2020. Twenty-two years later these articles represent a remarkable time capsule, one filled to the brim with déjá vu.

Iron Range talking heads of 1998 offered few quantifiable guesses about the future. Nobody likes being wrong in print. Instead, speculation generally centered on the challenges and changes people experienced at that moment.

For example, a Feb. 22, 1998 Gary Giombetti story about union and management relations seems fixated on upcoming labor contraction negotiations at the taconite mines. Several contracts have come and gone in years since with mostly unchanging rhetoric. We lost one mine at LTV. The other six produce the same amount of ore, but with far fewer employees overall.

One Feb. 15, 1998 story by Beth Pierce details the likely loss of population in the towns of Hibbing, Chisholm, Nashwauk and Keewatin. The projection of fewer than 16,000 people living in Hibbing in 2020 looks accurate according to the 2018 census estimate. We won’t know how much so until the conclusion of this year’s 2020 census. It could be slightly worse.

However, the same story predicted Chisholm, Keewatin and Nashwauk would lose half their population in the same time period. The actual population losses in these towns were smaller than that. Arguably, the devastating 1990 census — the one that captured the Iron Range’s localized depression of the 1980s — triggered the more dire prediction. Iron Range towns have been bleeding population, but more slowly. In some ways this gradual human erosion has proven more insidious because it also sapped the sense of urgency surrounding the problem.

The same could be said of editor Jim Gehrke’s Feb. 15, 1998 piece about the rising cost of college. Tuition for public and private colleges certainly did rise by more than double. Though, estimates that a four-year eduction would cost $132,000 for a public college and $282,000 for a private college ran just slightly higher than reality. (Not by much, though).

Other correct predictions: an older population that needs more care; huge demand for health care workers; and changing technology. Though it’s clear that the ‘98ers didn’t understand that technology very well.

For instance, it was adorable to read Frank Rajkowski’s March 8, 1998 story about how CD-ROM technology was going to revolutionize education. The last time I touched CD-ROMs was when my sons and I used them as wheels for rubber band cars in their science class. But the message behind the CD-ROM story still stands, if not the medium itself. Education now depends heavily on cloud computing and internet-based resources.

That technology knowledge gap provides the most frustrating factoid from the erstwhile “2020 Vision.” According to a Feb. 22, 1998 story by Christina Hiatt, Hibbing possessed one of the only small town high speed internet services in the state. In fact, Hibbing was one of the smallest towns in the country to have cable-to-the-door broadband.

“The Bridge” as it was then called, was a service of Range TV & Cable. But customers were slow to adopt the company’s innovative product. They wanted cheaper dial-up service. The Befera family sold the company to the international cable giant Mediacom which now charges more for internet than the Bridge did (as do all cable internet providers). Rural areas just outside Hibbing are just now getting high speed internet, but even yet coverage gaps remain.

“2020 Vision” details the story of six students at Nashwauk-Keewatin High School who developed the school’s first website using HTML coding. My friend Craig Hattam, now retired from teaching in the Hibbing Schools, talks about using the internet in his classroom, almost as though it were the Wild West.

Indeed, it was. But we now know Hibbing missed its chance to attract new telecom companies and software developers when it could have marketed its high speed internet advantage. And I’d attribute that mostly to the fact that no one with influence or capital knew enough about the technology.

Some, like former Hibbing mayor Richard Nordvold, talked about efforts to woo small tech firms. But it takes more than just a few public officials to make that happen. It takes a knowledgeable private sector and young entrepreneurs. We lacked those people then. Arguably, we still fall short in that sector, though there exist many more resources for those we do have.

Indeed, when it comes to Hibbing’s early internet advantage, we were apes with iPads. By the time we figured it out everyone else had passed us by. Did we learn anything from this? Let’s hope so. That’s the nice thing about the future. There’s always more of it.

Next week I’ll dive into some other observations from the “2020 Vision” publication.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and is the creator of the Great Northern Radio Show which aired for eight years on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, March 1, 2020 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



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