What economic diversification looks like

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

All you really need to do is ask someone who used to live on the Iron Range, “what do you see when you come back to the Range?” While there might be nostalgia over happy memories or familiar sites, more often than not they’ll say, “What happened?”

What happened to the businesses that used to be here? What happened to the appearance of the buildings? What happened to put all the economic activity on the edge of town while downtown looks barely occupied? Sometimes its hard to see these things when you live here and get used to it, but these are the questions I field most often from friends and family who come back to visit. These are the first impressions of the writers, tourists and professionals who I deal with all the time when they come here.

And really, you can get angry, point fingers and call the messenger “negative” if you want. That may bring temporary comfort, but things won’t really get better on the Range until we address these twin problems of aesthetics and attitude. Mining projects won’t fix this. Spec buildings won’t fix this. Blue ribbon committees and consultants won’t fix this either. We’re going to have to get out of the car for this one.

In recent weeks I’ve discussed how developing a diversified future for the Iron Range and northern Minnesota will require more than just fervent hope for the success of new mining ventures. But what am I really talking about? The truth is that developing homegrown economic diversification can take as many forms as the people who endeavor to create it. But here are some general ideas, for use or improvement:

Fill the voids: Every time a building sits empty it reduces the value of everything around it. So we must fill the empty spaces, even if only temporarily. Cities and building owners may fill the windows of vacant stores or businesses. Eye catching art or showcase displays (cool cars, “guess the weight of this excavator,” retired monster trucks) can adorn the otherwise depressing empty lots. This need not cost much; merely make the connection with artists and collectors with unseen treasures.

Go green: Whatever you can’t decorate, turn green — community gardens, low-maintenance shrubbery. Even well placed rocks, locally abundant, would be preferable to the gaping holes we often display in Iron Range towns.

Public art: Since ancient times, nothing has spoken more of a culture’s self-concept than public art. Something we all see together. Public artwork is part of the landscape, provides useful landmarks, and starts conversations. Every Iron Range town should create plans to add public artwork in high traffic areas. This is an excellent opportunity to partner with local artists, schools, and organizations to improve the look of our town. Local businesses could add to their communities, and attract new customers, by donating a corner of their lot to public art. Some public art is expensive, but it doesn’t have to be.

One of the most beautiful entrances to an Iron Range town is the “Bridge of Peace” as you drive in Chisholm. The colorful display of flags from around the world and all 50 United States is inspiring; and there’s no reason that every Range town can’t accentuate the entrances and main streets of their towns. We have the stories. We have the culture. We must show, not just tell.

Music: After language and art, comes music. It could be argued that music is the meeting of language and art. Minnesota communities like Duluth and Minneapolis are making a name for themselves by welcoming and celebrating musicians. And before you say that there are no such musicians on the Iron Range, I’d encourage you to check on the Iron Range Original Musicians Association — or the work of Rich Mattson in Sparta, or the countless practitioners of ethnic music from countries around the world who still live here, eager to pass down their craft.

Kids: If kids matter, kids activities matter. One of the big differences I’ve seen between the community where I’m from (Hibbing and the central Range) and the community where I live now (rural Itasca County and Grand Rapids) is the sheer abundance of children’s activities in Grand Rapids. Hibbing certainly offers things for kids, and people care, but the community could do more to show their love (and need!) for young families by stepping up kid-inspired, parent-driven, community-backed family programming.

These are only some ideas, and barely touch on education and entrepreneurship — areas where the Range is poised to make strides (if we only let ourselves). The best idea might well be found on your list, not mine. The entire point of economic diversification on the Iron Range is that many ideas from different people advance and grow on their own merit. Economic diversification is many, many small things with big results over time. Be persistent, be patient, and don’t let anyone tell you there’s a shortcut. There isn’t.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. The next show airs live at 5 p.m. from the Mesabi Range College theater in Virginia, Minnesota, on March 22. Find out how to get free tickets for limited studio audience seating at 800-662-5799. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, March 23, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. Elanne Palcich says

    During this “winter of our discontent” I’ve been thinking about our communities. As we move toward spring, we are as likely to see disruptions in food supply (California drought) as we have in propane shortages. Our communities need to become more locally sustainable. We citizens need to commit to making our towns more aesthetically pleasing while removing/salvaging old buildings and putting in community gardens/green houses. We also need more participatory community art, drama, music, sports–in our own towns rather than driving across half the county in order to be entertained, when we have no mass transit. Will changing climate and accompanying price increases finally drive us into making necessary (and more satisfying) life style changes?

  2. In Cook, which is Almost-Range, we have an active group called Northwoods Friends of the Arts. We have an art gallery (some display and some for sale), and we sponsor art classes for grade school students, as well as other activities for children. We’ve sponsored at least 8 concerts, with very excellent musicians, from as far away as New York and Alaska, and we sponsor an annual Spring Art Expo, which show cases artist’s work in various businesses in and around town. That gets people into businesses they might not otherwise enter, and it provides a venue for many artists to display their work, for sale or not, during the first few weeks of June. We support all types of art work, relying on a low membership cost, as well as business sponsorships, gifts, and a few fund raisers each year. The wider Cook community isn’t all that big, but we’ve grown and we’re getting recognition, as evidenced by more businesses supporting us each year with their memberships as well as a place to display art work. And yes, this endeavor is a lot of work, mostly done by some amazingly organized and persuasive people. We can’t slack off and rest on our laurels. We’ve been able to get grants to pay for 1) supplies for the kids’ art supplies (art supplies are very expensive,) 2) bringing musicians from far and near, classical to bluegrass, and gypsy jazz, and in between, 3) administrative support, which will help with public relations, space needs, furniture, computer support, etc.

    This type of thing does indeed make life in a smaller community more interesting. Cook has suffered the blows of empty stores in recent years. In fact one business that closed was very successful, but the owner wasn’t able to sell when that was needed, so it closed. We also suffered the tragedy of two large fires in 2013, which took two businesses, 8 apartments, and half of the motel. This has been difficult. I compared Cook to a 6 year old’s smile: bright smile with some teeth missing.

    I do hope that people rediscover the benefits of small town life. I hope that people see that shopping locally whenever possible helps all local boats to rise.

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