One vision for Range economic diversification

Today I follow up on last week’s post about the meaning of temporary prosperity in Iron Range mining. I’ve come up with a working list of things we (that is, the people, by way of our institutions) can do to diversify our economy and bolster our communities. The links go back to previous writing I’ve done on these topics.

One, the central premise here is that Iron Range mining revenue is not “bonus” money; it’s the statutory substitute for property taxes on the biggest land-owner and dominant industry in the region. Mines don’t pay property taxes. The production tax is to the Iron Range what 3M’s property taxes are to the city of Maplewood and its schools. The levy can be increased or decreased (though it hasn’t changed for decades); the money can be spent effectively or wastefully. That’s really up to us. This is the tax formula preferred by the industry.

Of course, mining and to a lesser degree logging will continue in northern Minnesota and will remain an important part of the economy. What they won’t do is provide the job base that they once did. Community prosperity will require other areas to pick up the slack.

High speed internet infrastructure. In just a few years, most of our media consumption and a serious majority of American productivity will be produced and delivered through a ubiquitous internet-like medium. Maybe it’ll be through the air, where telecom companies are developing profitable (read “expensive”) pricing and data transfer control. Or maybe the Iron Range can get out front on the more consumer friendly, democratic and potentially faster internet that can be delivered door to door through fiber optic wires.

Is it expensive? Yes. Do Iron Range retirees clamber for faster internet right now? No. But effective economic planning involves anticipation and risk, both of which point to using digital work as a major growth sector in the affordable and amiable north woods of our region. The cost is considerably less than doubling down on big industrial developments, a strategy that has failed for a generation. Costs may be further restrained if public/private partnerships are fostered. Why do this? Our interconnected communities and relatively large, centralized funding source could give us a competitive advantage over other areas like ours.

Public works. Hold on now, I don’t mean what you think. We don’t need foolish expansion of expensive sewers with no specified purpose, or spec buildings or land hoarding. Rather, we need to fix up Range towns and spend public works money to repair and remodel buildings for actual use. In many cases, the population loss and aging housing stock of some Range towns would suggest an ideal time to remove blight and replace it with parks, gardens and other low-cost public spaces or cheap sale to private entities. Certain road improvements and community buildings need money, too. Range production tax money is designed for this purpose.

School consolidation PLUS. What’s the “plus?” Well, the word consolidation sends people into a tizzy around here and for good reason. The communities of the Range are prideful and steeped in tradition, each with its own political structure and factions. Sports are such a big part of the culture that the identification with school colors and mascots runs deep long after people leave school. In many cases, the schools are important parts of a small town’s economy, which is why local business leaders are often the biggest opponents to consolidation efforts.

So “PLUS” means that we acknowledge all this. Consolidation must not be done as a form of surrender, but rather as a new opportunity to modernize curriculum and reduce class sizes. This will require not just leaders willing to risk their careers on the closing of buildings, but also money to modify or build centralized schools and increase course offerings. Ninety years ago the Oliver Mining Company put money into Hibbing High School to move it to new south Hibbing. Today, mining profits would suggest an opportunity to put local Range production money into schools.

To a degree, planning for the future of the Iron Range can only happen if the schools and communities herein find a way to collaborate for a shared future. It’s only happened a few times. The labor movement of the early 20th century. The establishment of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board and corresponding state agency in the ’40s. Perhaps during the Taconite Amendment fight back in the ’60s and subsequent revisions to statute that put more money into Range communities. Since then the story of the Range has been cities and school districts scrapping it out with less money and mining companies becoming more efficient and profitable.

The final item I’d suggest for the Range in this period is Self-Determinism. This doesn’t have to involve a libertarian/conservative revolution or a comfortable old liberal utopia. More likely it will involve elements of both. The Range must learn to welcome and produce entrepreneurs with ideas and the ability to raise their own capital. We must consciously consider how we’re doing and what we can do better. We must not wait for the next election or the next palpitation of mineral prices. We must do something.

It’s easy to imagine opposition to these unorthodox Range policy suggestions. But the enactment of Iron Range economic diversification can be done without the traditional talking heads or old powers, or even a political party. People in communities get together and do something. Opposition will melt, because they’ve not seen the likes of that in a long time.

That said, this can be done more quickly and with lasting results if board members and staff at the IRRRB adopt a bolder position during the current mining production boom. I hope they do.


  1. Aaron,

    One of the difficulties facing the Range is that it looks back for solutions. That generally means it is at least one step behind the actual development curve and always playing catch-up.

    School consolidation is an example. My impression is that large, centralized schools have been shown to be poor places for learning. And their advantages are declining as technology provides access to resources without geographic proximity. For instance, the school library with a large, diverse collection is no longer a major advantage for quality education.

    But as we look at the future of education, distance learning is becoming the norm. As you are seeing at Hibbing Community College. Distance learning is also requires a different skill set for the student. Perhaps what the Range ought to make itself a model for distance learning at the elementary and secondary school levels.

    Not only would that allow schools to hold onto one of their strengths, strong support from a local community. But it would attract innovative young teachers to the Range as the cutting edge of a new education model.

    Which brings me to my second point. The Range depends on the three T’s, and there are those that say it needs to add the fourth T, technology. But technology is no more the basis for local economic development than roads or electricity. They are ubiquitous services that will be available anywhere. Every industry uses technology, the actual focus needs to be much narrower. We need to focus on why a business would choose to use that technology on the Range rather than somewhere else.

    This is usually talked about as economic clusters. The Range has lots of people with knowledge of mining and related services. If you have technology to make mining more efficient, this is the place to be.

    This includes not only the industry itself, but a lot of support services. Jim Hoolihan’s company provides industrial lubricants. It started in Grand Rapids because there was mining and other industries in the area that used that service.

    As you have pointed out in the past, the Range is an industrial area. It ought to be looking at how it can attract technology that is used by heavy industry. Magnetation is an example of that. But the development of software that serves the mining industry would be another example.

    In short, being “welcoming” to entrepreneurs is not enough. Everyplace wants new business. The challenge is to be attractive to entrepreneurs. And that means being very targeted in who will be attracted.

    Of course, it also means investing in the infrastructure for modern business. High speed internet is just one part of that. The area also needs to attract the kind of technical support that doesn’t have people looking to the Twins Cities or Duluth for technology services beyond network administration and basic web development.

  2. “Being attractive” to entrepreneurs is very much what I mean when I say “welcoming,” hence the second item on my list about public works and community improvements. We have a major optics problem on the Range. When you drive through you see the decline far more obviously than the opportunity.

    If I leave big industrial concepts out of the mix it’s for very much the reasons you state. The laws of supply and demand are already at play in those instances. L&M Radiator, Irathane Systems, etc. are Range examples of international industrial product developers who serve the mines and more. I don’t know that there’s a magic formula for attracting them beyond what we agree upon: that communities need to be attractive themselves.

    On school consolidation, I hold my line. Yes, BIG consolidated schools are less effective than small schools. But on the Range it’s a matter of relativity. Failing districts are graduating 40 students or less, which is what I graduated with at Cherry — and that was a REALLY small school. I don’t know that a world class school graduating 150-200 people a year would constitute a school that was too large, so long as we are conscious of class size. I love the neighborhood concept where it can work, but there are just too many aging buildings in this region and not enough money. We need to build a school model and facilities plan that fits our current population.

    I teach distance learning, as you point out. The opportunities are enormous, but I am very hesitant to recommend it as a total solution for K-12. Many kids, even smart, capable kids, lack some of the soft skills and organizational talents needed to succeed in a self-directed enterprise like online learning. It could be a supplement, perhaps a way to send advanced curriculum into rural schools or to share a teacher’s services in a hybrid model.

  3. “Many kids, even smart, capable kids, lack some of the soft skills and organizational talents needed to succeed in a self-directed enterprise like online learning. “

    I think my point is that if you are talking about the near future, kids who don’t have those skills don’t have “the skills needed to succeed”, period. Its pretty clear that very few people in the future are going to have lifelong careers. The ability to retrain yourself is going to be critical.

    As for school size, my graduating class was over 400 people. I don’t think large schools are incapable of producing a good education. The result of that size was that we had three different four-year foreign language programs to choose from and two levels of physics available our senior year.

    But what I think modern education theory is saying is that rhe critical factor isn’t the size, but parental and community engagement in the school. Local schools foster that. It seems to me technology ought to make it possible to provide the same range of choices that I had, while sustaining the local community and parent engagement that local schools foster. But this isn’t an area of expertise for me, it was only a suggestion for how the Range could move ahead of the curve by being innovators, rather than always racing to catch up.

  4. One of the best articles you’ve written…you’re on the right track.

    Although no value was added by looking back, again, and including the brief history lesson on the wonderful labor movement, Stassons IRRRC(B) mistake and the political overtones…you’re forgiven. It was short and we know it’s in your DNA. (Leaders draw followers by articulating a doable, positive & exciting future, not by looking back).

    LCB…Stasson beat you to the four “T”‘s. It was included back in the 1941 IRRRB beginnings. — “From the beginning, the charge of the department has been to focus on four industries, now known as the “four Ts”: taconite, tourism, timber, and technology”.

  5. Amen LCB… “the critical factor isn’t the size, but parental engagement”.

    Study after study has proven this to be true..Also proven true is increased spending does not equate to increased graduation rate or improved test scores.

  6. “increased spending does not equate to increased graduation rate or improved test scores.”

    Those multiple language programs cost money and they may not have improved either graduation rates or test scores. But they did provide a better education.

    Money can’t buy you love and it can’t buy you happiness either. And there are plenty of cases where more expensive isn’t better. But I think the reality is that very few problems aren’t more easily solved with more money.

    In this case, spending on having more smaller schools may cost more. But it will improve the engagement of parents and the community in children’s education. More money=better education.

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