Stable mining sector highlights core woes in post-industrial North

You may have noticed the crumbly, jumbly economic news lately. Between the huge Wall Street stock selloff over the past few days or the general stagnation of growth and employment as our population grows and costs rises, we’ve got problems in America, sure. And we’ve got specific problems here in northern Minnesota, but not the ones many would predict.

Iron Range mines are running a stable and healthy level of production, as illustrated by this Dan Kraker story for Minnesota Public Radio. Demand for raw materials, here and abroad, is holding with supply and people are working in the pits and plants of Range mines, still our largest employer here.

Nevertheless, the economy of northern Minnesota’s Iron Range doesn’t seem good. It seems OK at best, and that’s highly situational (Situation being what’s going on in your own wallet or purse). People in the service sector are strained. Private sector manufacturing is volitile, waiting to see what orders come from the successful mines and if there’s any work to be found elsewhere. And the public sector in northern Minnesota will be facing massive layoffs over the next year, which will severely depress the middle class in this region, probably throughout the state.

The important takeaway for northern Minnesota and the Range is that the days when the success of the mines solely dictated the success of the region are over. Mines will remain major industry and a key indicator for a long time, but will not generate the prosperity seen in Iron Range past without help from other sectors and independent leadership and innovation from people in the region.

So much of life on today’s Iron Range is watching middle aged people long for the Uncle Rico time machine that takes us back to the ’70s, when the taconite plants overflowed with well-paid, relatively unskilled labor. In reality, today’s taconite plants (and the proposed copper-nickel mines, for that matter) will run smaller and more efficiently, with “good” jobs but fewer to go around.

As our communities bargain with mining companies for jobs, remember that these companies cannot promise the regional stability of the past, even as they become more fiscally stable and profitable than at any point in history. There, in summary, is a sampling of our larger economic problems.


  1. Well said.

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