Iron Range 2011: Everything is wonderful, nothing is safe

Iron Range taconite production recovered in 2010, ending shy of its peak numbers from 2008 just after the recession started. The six taconite plants on the Range, ore dump salvaging Magnetation and the value-added producer Mesabi Nugget are expected to produce as much as 39 million tons in 2011.

Keewatin Taconite is getting green lights during the middle stages of its permitting process on opening a new production line, which would add 3.6 million tons of capacity. Essar Steel is still claiming principle production will begin on its new taconite mine on the west Range, the precursor to the long-awaited steel plant. Magnetation is aiming to expand its ore extraction from the west Range dumps of Itasca County.

In short, 2011 is hunky dory on the Iron Range, except of course that we’ll shed public sector jobs and our schools are entering something close to a fiscal crisis. This will create something of a middling, treading water feel that will keep real growth from happening until the taconite industry stumbles again.

It is imperative that every level of government, the private sector and, particularly, people on the street consider these next five years of utmost importance for the diversification and expansion of the Iron Range’s economic base. No, not the end of mining, the start of something else. The economic conditions in big cities or suburbs aren’t that great either. Why not live and create in a place with heart, history and interesting weather?

There are those who say that the Iron Range doesn’t want to change, doesn’t want to invite new people here or accept new ideas. I invite those of that belief to defend your reasoning. The slow death of a region is nothing pretty to watch. I do not intend to participate in such an endeavor.


  1. We will change and grow as a region if we get back to the work ethic that made the Range great. I’ve seen the change from industrious, caring & hard working- to I’m getting screwed by the mining company and I need some help from the county or state. I’m not saying we’ll go back to the glory years of mining but with the minerals we have up here, good jobs should be available to many. We have to change the perception that we are not business friendly, totally tied to unions and won’t work hard. That unfortunately is how we are looked at by the rest of the state. As far as education is concerned, you can talk about all the change you’d like to see but until parents get involved, demand their children do the work and get good grades, nothing will change. In Gary Indiana, the school board said we’ll do better if we get more state/fed money. They were up to $19,500 per student per year, the graduation rate stayed at 50% and grades didn’t improve. The DFL’s standard practice is, throw money at the problem, it won’t work. No child left behind was a joke, one of Bush’s many progressive programs that got us into financial problems and now Obama has put that idiotic spending on steroids. Long term, solid paying jobs will follow business friendly areas and hard working people. K Edwards

  2. I actually agree with some of the things you say here. We could get into a partisan argument about the nature of government spending, the fact that unions represent workers and that workers are as important as businesses, and that there a lot of people who work very hard around here (you, at times, deal in stereotype without specific examples), but I sincerely hold that argument as secondary to a larger problem that we seem to agree on — an increased engagement in business expansion on the Range.

    Our job numbers are, big picture, dismal because no practical amount of mining jobs are going to make the region a vibrant, self-sustaining economy like I think Dems and Rs would both want.

    I’m not particularly concerned with Gary, Indiana, though I’d point out that is an urban region, dealing with problems of generational poverty and a system that has failed. Hold that aside. I would suggest that you’re bringing that up as part of a larger, ideological, cultural debate that I am not interested in.

    Here on the Range we have some problems with school funding, too, and they are not as simple as allocating more money (which won’t happen) or less (which will, and won’t inspire greatness, either). We have some organizational issues that will require some local leaders to do research and show great courage, possibly at the expense of their short term political careers. That is no small thing.

    You are right that jobs follow hard working areas that are friendly to business, but I disagree that being friendly to business is solely a financial, tax-based argument. Business, like workers, like political ideas, take root in places that are fertile and confident. This is what we need on the Iron Range.

  3. Chicken vs egg theory on what comes 1st, fertile confident areas that attract business or business success brings a fertile confident community. My grandparents came to the Range in the early 1900’s, there was nothing here. As mining took off schools, hospitals, churches rose up to help the people endure the brutal winters. I’m a firm believer that you make an area business friendly, where businessmen can make a profit, you’ll create jobs and your area will grow in all aspects. You should be concerned about education because it’s not an urban problem, it’s a country wide crisis. Again, government got involved by creating Education Dept and our schools have gotten worse. Lets quit throwing money at wind turbines that freeze up when it’s cold, ATV trails and Giants Ridge and give financial incentives to businesses, you’ll see the Range grow in all ways. I do business in Twin Cities, I could give you many many examples of companies that used to business up here and now won’t- due to cost and lack of work ethic. K Edwards

  4. You’re jumping around a bit, is my point. The Dept of Ed may or not be important to all this. I think many educational problems are tied to unfunded mandates, certainly in small districts like the Range area. I get your point, that money doesn’t guarantee success. And I concede that some teacher unions have pit the brakes down on some reforms. However, these are organizations of professionals that care a great deal about kids and know their business. I am a teacher myself, as you know.

    I write here often that our problems are fundamentally demographic. Young families have left leaving behind a stratified world of educated, experienced people at or near retirement and a unskilled workforce emerging from increasingly deficient schools. I don’t think calling it a work ethic problem is entirely accurate. The NW/delta call center was known for its quality workforce before the merger. HIbbing has the top grossing Walmart in the region. If you’re talking about low pay, fly by night businesses like fingerhut you can probably make your case, but I don’t think playing for that kind of company helps us, certainly not in regard to quality of life. They will leave for cheaper labor any chance they get, regardless of work ethic.

    But what do I know, I only live here now, right?

    I get what you’re saying about 1900, but bear in mind the huge economic and social differences then. People were dying from polio epidemics. We live in a modern world, one that I believe fundamentally requires a public/private combination of solutions.

  5. The public/private combo should be 90% private 10% government. The businesses I want up here are major manufacturing companies. Years ago there was a company called J&J Casting in Hibbing that produced cylinder heads for trains nation wide. Why can’t we manufacture products here? I know that jobs went overseas because our elected officials taxed the companies right outta the country, but lets change that. Your guy Dayton believes we should balance our budget woes on the back of businesses and business men. Ask New Jersey & New York how that worked, they lost more jobs and companies than any other state when they tried taxing the businesses to pay for all the spending they did. Bring PolyMet up here, be creative with property taxes and state taxes. Lets not scare them away with union talk and bad work ethic.

  6. With all due respect we’ve had almost 8 years of Gov. Pawlenty’s JOB-Z program, absolving participating businesses of taxes for 12 years and the needle of progress only jiggled a bit. Other factors, such as labor costs (with our stubborn insistence on living wages in this country) and transportation costs play a bigger factor. As a business person you certainly know that taxes are but one part of a very large puzzle of making a company work.

    And I’m sorry, but manufacturing? Seriously? I wish you could go back to the 1900s, where such a thing was possible. Dependence on manufacturing for economic stability is what’s putting Ohio and Michigan in worse shape than us. We live in a service-based, creative economy. The Iron Range is excused because we are on top of a massive mineral reserve. That is temporary relief. I’ll take it, but I won’t rest easy.

    If Americans aren’t smarter and more creative than the rest of the world we’re dead. Period.


    I work hard. And my friends and neighbors work hard. Unless you’ve got something more substantive to say about work ethic please stop using that baseless claim.

  7. You must live in a cave if you think the Range has a solid reputation as far as work ethic goes. Pack your bags and leave our corner of the world, go to the Cities and talk to companies. You’ll find out they believe we’re socialists, so tied to union, they don’t want to come up here. Are you serious about a “consumer driven” economy? Have you stopped to think that all the products you buy were actually MADE somewhere or did they fall from the sky. Nice try on Pawlenty, he had the DFL running both houses, he spent all his time trying to keep us from becoming the highest taxed state in the union. Come on don’t fall for the spread the wealth, it’ll be good for you, crap being peddled here and in DC. We are not USSR.

  8. USSR? That sounds like a word that mattered when I was a child but doesn’t anymore.

    Things are made places. Things are made places it’s profitable. There are areas — serving mines, or better yet, rolling hot steel off the line at the mouth of an iron mine, where manufacturing makes sense on the Range. Most other manufacturers have gone out of business, competing with countries paying pennies on the dollar for labor. You can’t beat that, not even breaking the unions, which I will fight you to the death on.

    I’m am somewhat concerned with reputation, as I know of the reputation you speak of, but I deal in reality, and the reality is that the Iron Range is ready to work with all manner of businesses.

    So who are you calling lazy? Me? My friend, the electrician with a baby on the way? My friend, the contractor with a disabled wife? Who are you calling lazy? Who? I think you have some personal issues with the Iron Range and you can’t let them go. I spend time on this comment thread because it is my blog. What is your deal?

  9. Anon nailed it when he said “check with companies in the cities”, or elsewhere regarding the Range image (reality) and it’s pro-socialism, pro-unionism stance. Like it or not Aaron, it’s valid, it’s real.

    Why does this matter? People and areas with these views have a “we / they” attitude towards their employers from the get go. This inherently puts the business owner at a competitive disadvantage vs it’s competitors.
    Non-union, non-socialist areas have a much more of a win/win attitude.

    i.e…checkout where 3M plants have a long, long history of prospering and great relationships with the community. It ain’t pro-union areas. Then checkout areas where 3M has closed plants. (I choose 3M ’cause I know a little about them..but you could pick any other successful Fortune 100 mfg. company as well.)

  10. Hi Aaron:

    Thanks for continuing this discussion. Not meaning to change the direction here (I don’t feel everyone I know is lazy and worthless either) … But just an FYI which you may already know …

    Not to be picky, but several people I know still work for Fingerhut. Even though they no longer have a company building in Eveleth, there are still people that work from their home for Fingerhut. They use a computer and the phone, and they get as much done from home as they did in the building. The people I know are happy with their jobs (they were stay-at-home moms whose kids are now all in school, but they get to be “home” and work). I don’t know how many people are employed or what their turn-over rate is or anything, just that I know several people who are happy for that job and how it is set-up. I also know these people have worked for the company for a long time (10+ years). (Not saying that everyone should work for Fingerhut or that it’s a great paying job, but for some people it’s not really a bad gig and they might not agree with your “fly-by-night” statement.)

    That is all. : )

  11. Aaron, I’m a life long Ranger, son of a miner, grandson of the first miners on the Range. I LOVE this place. I hunt, fish & spend time with some of the most interesting, fun loving people in the world up here. I agree with the bloggers that simply say we’re looked at by the rest of the state as a “union loving, non hard working lot”. I argue with my business friends from Cities all the time about it. I worked at MinnTac in the 70’s, left, went to college and have been working for myself ever since. I’ve had a house up here all my life, it’s home. The business men, who used to work up here have simply chosen not to. It’s a sad fact. I also agree with those who say, why not us, when it comes to manufacturing. Say what you’d like, but WE (and those we’ve elected) have chased manufacturing to other counties with taxes on every aspect of making goods and capital gains taxes if you happen to make money investing in other companies. That’s just a fact. Aaron, don’t buy into the lie that we are ONLY a consumer based driven economy. NO COUNTRY can stand if they only buy what other people make. It’s the standard Keynesian economics that haven’t worked anywhere in the world. I hear when we give unemployment benefits it stimulates the economy more than a tax break for a business that’ll create jobs. REALLY? That makes no sense to anybody who knows how an economy truly works. It is job creation that pushes economy. We need to manufacture goods here in America. Mining, manufacturing, farming & invention have driven us in the past and will have to in the future if we want a healthy country. I enjoy your blog, thank you. Sincerely, One Old Ranger.

  12. @Amy – You know, I thought they had closed. Perhaps Fingerhut was a poorly chosen example. I knew a guy who worked there years ago and his stories of the depression it caused him might have tainted my thoughts. The intent I was trying to convey was that call-center type jobs are lower skill, lower paying jobs. In an economy with a desperate work force those jobs are probably going to be filled by people who lack skills and, frankly, are the poor students of our modern world. I don’t think it’s fair, however, to say that means that the Range has a poor work ethic. It’s more of a large-scale cultural issue that can’t be pinned to “taxes.”

    Back to @Anon #1, Mr. Edwards is it? I just can’t devote energy to the debate over the existence of unions. Unions are collective bargaining units that have played a very important role in the development of the middle class in this country. I’m not saying the labor movement doesn’t have problems or can’t be sluggish at the wrong times, I think I’ve been pretty fair in bringing that up in my writing here over the years.

    @One Old Ranger, appreciate the idea and I agree with you in part. However, the provisions that would be necessary to get our manufacturing economy back the way it was in the 1970s or before would be utterly and completely protectionist. I don’t see how either party pulls that off. And I further don’t want to see us race to the bottom on quality of life for workers.

    Lower wages mean more problems. All kind of problems.

    “Taxes,” broadly speaking, aren’t the issue. We pay less in taxes than most of the big economic powers and our economy is roughly in the same shape as Europe, where you’d agree the taxes are far more undesirable than here. We haven’t significantly raised taxes at the federal level since Reagan. Oh, we’ve spent, but that’s a whole other argument. I have to get back to work, so pardon me for not getting into Keynes, though I like that an ex-MinnTac guy is talking about Keynes. Makes me feel good.

  13. “Lower wages mean more problems”??
    Should we take that to mean wages shouldn’t be based on merit…on competition? If not, what basis do we use?

  14. Is the Range job climate closer to Austin or Califorina?;photovideo

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