2020 Hindsight: Revisiting the future of our past, Part 2

Images from “Vision 2020” in 1998 editions of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.
Aaron J. Brown

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

This is the second of a three-part series. 

Last week I told you about a 1998 Hibbing Daily Tribune special section entitled “2020 Vision.” Back then, reporters interviewed local people about what they saw happening in our region by the year 2020.

They got a lot right. For instance, many predicted the rise of health care as a dominant industry in the region to serve its aging population. Technology was changing, though as I discussed last week our region couldn’t see where the internet was going as an economic tool until more recently.

Superintendents knew that the next 22 years would see enormous declining enrollment. They predicted what they used to call “pairing and sharing.” That nebulous term for cross-district cooperation has since fallen out of vogue. The coming merger of Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert high schools in two years demonstrates the full effect of what school officials saw coming in 1998. Fiscal conditions have demanded much more of local schools with fewer resources, and will continue to do so.

In a Feb. 15, 1998 story, reporter Frank Rajkowski asked “Will we lose touch with our roots?” His story summarized the immigrant history of the Iron Range and the plight of many ethnic clubs trying to keep tradition alive.

“You have to draw a distinction between thick and thin identities,” [University of Minnesota assistant professor of sociology Doug] Hartman said in the story. “A lot more people are claiming their ethnic backgrounds, but usually it’s little more than saying they are that and maybe doing something on the holidays they might not have done otherwise.

“It isn’t something that affects them much,” Hartman continues. “And a lot of the communities in which the ethnic identity used to be thick, with their own practices and churches, are mostly gone now.”

This was written in 1998. In 2020 it’s all the more true. Another generation of children and cultural change pushes us further from the past.

This was highly evident during the recent debate over refugee resettlement in rural Minnesota. Only the historians could cite the conditions that most Rangers faced in in the early 1900s. Most others seem to believe that their ancestors arrived speaking perfect English, happily whistling the Star Spangled Banner on their way to work. In truth, Iron Range history was complex, diverse and very difficult for most people.

My biggest takeaway from “2020 Vision” was that most of the 1998 speculation about the Iron Range of 2020 could be rehashed today. Nonferrous mining could be a big deal some day; just you wait. There’s plenty of iron ore in the ground; we’ll just have to move very expensive things with money from somewhere to get it. There will be scads of jobs when today’s old people retire; but do young people have the skills?

There isn’t much about today’s Iron Range economy that couldn’t be said of it during the Clinton Administration. That’s probably the the most prophetic thing about “2020 Vision.” We’ve been treading water for 20 years. And while it’s admirable that we haven’t drowned, now seems as good a time as any to start swimming.

A Feb. 22, 1998 story by Beth Pierce describes the function of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB). As you might know, this unique state agency disperses some of the taconite production tax to economic development efforts. I swear to you, with my right hand placed solemnly on the Taconite Amendment, the story could appear in today’s paper and you would not know the difference. One need only overlook the fact that some of the people in the article are now dead.

But that’s the rub. For some, moving forward means economic diversification. For others, it means diversifying the kinds of mining that we do. The first one is hard and takes time. The second one seems a lot easier but requires near constant political attention and boundless trust in mining trade organizations.

When the situation seems dire the expedient choice becomes more appealing. The people of ’98 were spooked by the 1980s mining downturn. The people of today seem spooked by the closure of LTV and the consolidation of an industry that is no longer the region’s biggest employer.

Are we going to be scared? Or will we lovingly arrange our communities so we survive anything that comes our way?

I’ll take one final look the 2020 Vision project next week.

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 8, 2020 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



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