Rural, post-industrial closures are opportunities in disguise (For real!)

One thing people in rural and post-industrial places like the Iron Range need to do is …

Sigh. Here I go again.

Listen, just look outside your window right now. Do you see a green or blue thing that is not a building where animals live or could live? I mean big ones, not squirrels. If yes, you are rural. Bonus points for deer excrement.

If no, do you see a house, maybe your house, singed with some kind of common particulate that you’re told is harmless but that has been steadily accumulating since 1981 and you know this because what do you expect; I’m not going to move around all willy-nilly working in some damn cube in friggin’ Edina so I have lived here since [taconite, steel, coal, oil] started OR was raised here after the [mines, mills, refineries] went bad OR bought this house second hand from an old timer who used to work the railroad, odd kind of guy but nice; used to give pennies to the kids on his way home from work; that’s what grandpa said.

If any of that rings a bell you are post-industrial. Don’t be ashamed. Post-industrial is going to the hot thing next season.

If you are both, of course, you are probably on or near the Iron Range. Even if you live or work smack dab in the middle of a concrete Plinko game, if you have fond feelings, maybe even a childhood memory of these kinds of places you’re my target demo. Stick with me.

So let’s go back. You know what the thing is about the Iron Range? Stuff closes all the time. Sometimes it’s economic, sometimes it’s because of trends, sometimes it’s because our business class is all about the same age and approaching retirement. All of this snowballs into the aforementioned feeling that stuff closes all the time. Because it does. And this affects people.

So the Mesabi Athletic Club in Hibbing closed Monday, rather suddenly. (Story, Hibbing Daily Tribune, subscription link) This was a private gym and workout facility, the closest thing to a YMCA in town. The MAC faced increasing competition from the handful of strip mall/24-hour fitness joints you’d see in most towns, soulless people-mills where even attractive people appear sullen and the TVs are all set to CNN because that’s what you watch in purgatory. Also, utility bills — which have spiked in Hibbing (a town that still operates a coal-generated power plant) — were a big factor. In fact the sudden closure was due to a delinquent power bill.

The MAC is for sale, but so is most of the town and neighboring towns. I’m not trying to project an overly negative economic image here. The economy is actually fairly stable right now. It’s just that commercial real estate has been like this for three decades, which bears mentioning.

Presuming that the MAC won’t reopen in its current form, or that if it does the same market forces that caused its closure will suck down another private investor, let’s get to my original point. Every crisis is an opportunity. Communities that convert their complaining skills into “doing stuff” skills will survive and thrive in the 21st century. Even Hibbing could do this. Yes, Hibbing! And all of the Range.

What if community leaders … scratch that. What if regular people — parents, young people, seniors, working people — got together and began forming a new YMCA in Hibbing? The town had one years ago. Grand Rapids and Mountain Iron both support successful YMCAs about half an hour away on either side.

Some general facts, the Hibbing Schools are facing declining enrollment. They have a pool at the Lincoln Intermediate Elementary that no one knows what to do with. What if a nonprofit YMCA was co-located at the conveniently-located school in collaboration with the district? What about the high school? What about the old Jefferson school, which is now owned by a bakery that doesn’t need all that space?

The old bowling alley on Highway 37 entering town? The old Ogles grocery store where they have farmers’ market in the parking lot now? That’s right by the mall. Half the Irongate Mall is available. Literally. One contiguous half of the mall has been closed off from the public because there’s nothing in there. And, of course, the MAC itself, though small, could serve a more limited scope model.

Closures might seem depressing at first, but these closures do open opportunities. Fill these spaces. Commercial development would be great, but think of the possibilities for creative people and nonprofits as well. What if the IRRRB was involved, fixed these places up or knocked them down for parks and fields. Build, grow, consolidate and reuse: find the happy medium that these communities have sought since their inception just 100 years ago. It’s not always about expanding; it’s about regenerating.

I’m willing to work on this. Who else?

Follow MinnesotaBrown on Twitter or “like” the blog on Facebook. Read more in my book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”


  1. Great comments Aaron. Working with private investors, entrepreneurs is the next step.

    One huge advantage the Range has is the availability of IRRRB money.

    The next step is developing page 2 & 3 of one or two of these ideas..

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