The art of building an Iron Range economy

aaron_croppedOne finds resistance discussing the diversification of northern Minnesota’s economy into areas outside natural resources. Convincing local leaders that real economic growth can come from abstract concepts like art and design is often as difficult as extracting 100 long tons of iron ore from the earth. I mean, you can’t even use dynamite, which would probably help at least as much in both instances.

People go with what they know, and on Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range people know mining, logging and making paper. This was hard-fought knowledge, paid for with blood, sweat, lives and livelihoods. So it’s understandable to protect the sacrifices of the past. It’s human nature.

Nevertheless, the past 100 years have been a doozy. Northern Minnesota iron ore, for instance, was instrumental to U.S. victories in World War I and especially World War II. It was instrumental in the process of building modern American cities and vehicles, elements that facilitated a mass flight from rural areas, small towns and Rust Belt industrial burgs into sleek metro dwellings and suburban sprawl. Mechanization and market efficiencies conspired to cut the taconite mining workforce in half relatively recently, so that even today’s robust iron mining industry is employing far fewer dads and moms than when my dad and mom had me in 1979.

In short, a handful of leaders and a few hundred thousand Iron Range miners and their families gave so much of themselves so well that today we stand looking at an imposing American economy that doesn’t have much use for its place of origin. We put union bumper stickers on American cars made in Mexico, hoping one day we can afford the Japanese ones made in Tennessee at non-union plants.

I spent a lot of time last month writing about the place mining has in a blended Iron Range economy for the new century. And it has a place, to be certain. But so too and so must creative production and services.

In the Sept. 12, 2013 edition of Business North, Ron Brochu writes about the economic impact of the arts in this region. His publication’s analysis shows that 25 non-profit regional organizations (such as the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm) create a direct financial impact of $13 million and more than 250 jobs in Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin.

Some takeaways from those numbers: That’s a significant number — an economic footprint similar to a small mine or manufacturer. Still, that’s obviously not a big enough number to replace the hundreds of millions and thousands of jobs found in natural resource extraction.

Where it really matters though is in the correlation between economic growth and the health of the creative sector. Minnesota’s economy as a whole has been faring much better than the national average in recent years in key measures: lower unemployment, more new private sector hiring and almost booming creative and service sectors. Brochu points out that one study from 2004 put the state’s economic arts impact at more than $838 million.

Even Business North’s numbers show how this plays out on the ground. St. Louis County has the most arts and culture-based impact, owing mostly to Duluth which is becoming a remarkably strong economic center despite lagging numbers here on the Range. After that, the next county with the most arts jobs and economic impact is Itasca — where cultural centers like the Reif Center in Grand Rapids and the Edge Center for the Arts in Bigfork provide an above average arts impact.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Itasca County’s business growth and economic stability has weathered the storm better than its eastern Iron Range/North St. Louis Co. brethren, evidenced in population and school enrollment growth. No, Itasca County isn’t perfect (I live there now and there is a problem with social stratification between rich and poor, for instance). But it’s moving in the direction the Iron Range economy needs to go.

Which came first? The vibrant arts community or the self-sustaining economy? It’s a challenging question. We know that successful economies include a healthy balance of manufacturing, technology, services, creative development and, in our case, natural resources.

About two years ago NPR’s “This American Life” explored regional economic development strategies. The problem is that planners are rewarded for short-term success, which is expensive and fleeting. Long-term success means sustained hard work and willingness to accept delayed gratification beyond several elections. Investments in arts, culture and the aesthetics of happy, interesting welcoming communities do pay off. We have to have the courage to try.

This was published in the Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio ( The next show will broadcast live from Crosby-Ironton High School in Crosby, MN, on Saturday, Oct. 19. For more information about free admission to the show, call 218-326-1234.


  1. FYI, the economic impact study’s the arts in Minnesota that you are citing is ours, from 2007, “The Arts: A Driving Force in Minnesota’s Economy.” You can find both the statewide and regional reports at It analyzed the economic impact of nonprofit arts and culture in the state, in each of the 11 economic develpment regions, and in some cities. It was produced in collaboration with the Regional Arts councils and the McKnight Foundation.

    There was a second report on the economic impact of individual artists the following year, “Artists Count: The Economic Impact of individual Artists in. Minnesota.” It also has regionalized data, and interestingly showed that artist salaries in the Arrowhead/ N. MN were higher than in many other parts of the state. It can also be found on our website. it was produced in collaboration with Springboard for the Arts, the Minnesota Craft council, and the McKnight Foundation.

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