COLUMN: Range towns should look inward for future possibilities

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, June 26, 2011 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune

Range towns should look inward for future possibilities
By Aaron J. Brown

I’ve learned that a sound, compact wooden railroad design will yield many fun adventures for my boys. A poor design will collapse easily, requiring numerous repairs and producing grumpy children. One quick fix to a bad situation is to keep building a line off to the side, restarting a fresh railway connected to the hellscape you’ve left behind. Invariably, however, available track runs out. Resources expire and you are left no choice but to tear down the whole works.

Abandoning a bad plan for outward expansion is OK when you’re dealing with toys in a playroom. This is simply not an option when you’re planning the future of Iron Range communities like ours.

Here in Hibbing the last decade has produced growth around the edge of town, most notably the commercial area surrounding Wal-Mart. Some real estate ads in this paper now tout proximity to Wal-Mart instead of the actual city of Hibbing. The city has run power and sewer infrastructure out toward the airport, where a giant spec building stands as a hulking reminder of human error.

Meantime most empty buildings in Hibbing have remained empty, or became empty again after brief revivals. The downtown, beautified by flowers, is no stronger now than 10 years ago. Housing stock is older, less valuable at the top end and less affordable at the bottom. This is not unusual. Towns like ours are experiencing these same problems all over the country.

Over in Nashwauk the city just spent a quarter million dollars on acreage at the edge of town. The logic is that the area was the only place the city could expand now that it’s penned in by mining land. At the same time much of downtown Nashwauk’s business sector is for sale. The city has its entire economic development plan wrapped up in Essar’s proposed project, which is materializing slowly and could take a decade or more to recapture public investment under even an optimistic projection. The Nashwauk-Keewatin School district will face a fiscal and facilities crisis in the coming year, with no monetary help on the horizon.

Again, one can understand the temptation to chase expansion when so little seems to be going well. All the towns are doing it, you know. Why not ours? The cold reality is that local governments will bear the first, greatest brunt of the coming public funding crisis. Only those places with strong plans will survive, at least in any meaningful way.

A Brainerd-based organization called “Strong Towns” specializes in this idea, providing advice and research to communities that seek to endure these hard times. A June 14 Strong Towns blog post by Charles Marohn, “The Growth Ponzi Scheme” challenges conventional ideas about city expansion.

For instance, Marohn shares examples of city investment in street expansions and industrial park development in towns not unlike those here on the Range. What seems like a short term gain in development and property tax revenue can often mask a long term financial commitment to infrastructure maintenance that simply won’t add up in the long run. Even if new development takes hold the city will be playing to break even at best. Many industrial park developments simply never make the money back.

I’d add that the kinds of modern “just outside town” development we’ve seen provides no honor to our people. What are these big pole buildings with nondescript names in which people do nondescript things? Strip malls that can be interchanged with those in another town imply that our people are also interchangeable. Cities with meaning inspire people to come and stay, build and grow. In a region like the Iron Range, where history, culture and geography make us so unique, any attempt to copy the suburbs is not only foolish, but wrong.

Demographic evidence shows that most of the growth in northern Minnesota is in the rural areas on lakes and outside towns. Most of the growth in towns is, as stated earlier, on the edges of towns. Ask yourself why people aren’t living, starting businesses or spending as much time inside our towns as they once did? Your answer to the question probably represents a difficult challenge, one that will require as much mind power as it will money. This is where our efforts should be focused.

One thing seems certain; dumping money on the city limits won’t get us any closer to a solution, and may sink us even deeper in the hole. The future, for better or worse, lies in the core of our communities and ourselves.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and college instructor from the Iron Range. He is the author of the blog and the book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”


  1. Sounds just like a rural community my family left recently in the Kootenays Region of British Columbia.

    I wish you well in your efforts to educate, my experience is that small town councils want to be big town councils, and that developers in these cimmunities have a lot of sway.

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