On the brink of the new, or the end

This is my weekly column for the Hibbing Daily Tribune published Sunday, Feb. 22, 2009.

On the brink of the new, or the end
By Aaron J. Brown

Today, amid the droning headlines of the flagging national economy, I’m here to write the words you long to hear. Everything on the Iron Range is going to be OK. Probably. If we modernize our economy very soon. Otherwise we are doomed. Oh dear, I bet that made you anxious. Well, you should be.

It’s true. On one hand, things aren’t as bad as they seem. Despite current or potential temporary layoffs at all Range taconite plants, there are still glimmers of long term hope in the steel industry. Nashwauk’s Essar Steel Minnesota and Hoyt Lakes’ Mesabi Nugget, both value added iron mining and production projects, are forging ahead. This means that when steel prices recover the traditional Iron Range economy will return to its previous state.

The greater issue, however, is that the previous state of the Iron Range economy just wasn’t good enough, nor has it been for the three decades I’ve been alive. A hundred years of Range history has taught us that dependence on one industry leads to an inevitable conclusion: boom and bust; hit the road, youngsters, there’s nothing to see here.

In previous columns I’ve applied ideas from Richard Florida’s “The Rise of the Creative Class” to the Iron Range. In short, a place like the Range will struggle so long as it remains unattractive to creative types, like inventors, artists, entrepreneurs and the like. Sure, we’ve got some of those folks, but northern Minnesota is known first for natural resources, recreation and tourism, not creativity. Many of our most creative people have done their creating elsewhere while those creatives here routinely face parochial, political or cultural barriers that aren’t as prevalent elsewhere.

Florida wrote a story for the March 2009 edition of “The Atlantic” called “How the Crash Will Reshape America” that details how the economic downturn in the U.S. will trigger geographic and social change that could challenge the conventional wisdom of the last three decades (again, the entire lifetime of today’s young parents and new workers). That includes the resurgence of major American cities like New York and Chicago, the slowing of growth in suburbs and Sun Belt cities and the continued decline of Rust Belt and Midwestern towns. That last part should be of concern to you and me. See, there’s no reason to expect economies dependent on one industry, especially volatile industries like steel, to grow naturally into mighty oaks. Indeed, Florida describes how areas like ours will essentially be entering a lottery to determine which survives the long, slow decline of these times.

One hope for the future of northern Minnesota’s Iron Range is that our natural resources base – the very thing that caused this region to grow the way it did and yet holds the place in a the static state we now know – isn’t going anywhere. People will need our ore, our timber, our fresh water and our recreational opportunities (if only because camping will be the only vacation many can afford next summer). So we can count on something, perhaps not much, but something to sustain a population into the future. I don’t need to tell you, especially if you are concerned about the future of the next generation of Iron Rangers, that this just isn’t good enough. We need more.

On this front there is something encouraging to take from Florida’s findings about the future of America’s cities, towns and rural landscape. Florida writes: “… the economy is different now. It no longer revolves around simply making and moving things. Instead, it depends on generating and transporting ideas.” This is why Florida says the suburban sprawl of the 1990s and early 2000s is waning. People can no longer justify living in huge houses they can’t afford, driving huge vehicles they don’t need to arrive at far-away jobs. Florida says that urban cores will enjoy a resurgence. I point out that the Iron Range enjoys housing prices that never reached the bloated inflation of metro centers, could expand its high speed internet to attract new industries and e-commuters and still enjoys quality schools and communities, despite the continuing and real specter of budget cuts. We are not yet, but could become, a place where ideas are created and sold as readily as taconite pellets. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that, failing this development, the Iron Range is entering an inevitable decline that shames our history. Sorry. I guess the only good news out there involves hard work. Let’s get to it.

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Read more at his blog MinnesotaBrown.com. His book, “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” is out now.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.