A story in data: Northern Minnesota’s next challenges

Tracks leading to the crushing plant at the Soudan Underground Mine State Park.

Tracks leading to the crushing plant at the Soudan Underground Mine State Park.

The Center for Rural Policy and Development issued its State of Rural Minnesota 2014 Report this week, including a number of compelling graphics about the current and projected economic status of Greater Minnesota counties.

The report might prompt different conclusions based on who reads it, but since I write about Northern Minnesota, I see a rather specific pattern centered on demographics, population movement and economic status.

Northern Minnesota will see uneven population and economic growth over the next few decades. The window to diversify our economy using our existing resources is open now, but closing fast.

Let me explain. Check this out:

Since 1990, the population of most Northern Minnesota counties actually increased. Despite the old narrative of total collapse, we have seen people move back to the region after the disastrous 1980s. Our region is still alive and still changing. In St. Louis County, population decreased on the Iron Range (as it has for more than 50 years), but Duluth and desirable lakeshore property more than made up for it at the county level. You really see this effect in Itasca, Hubbard, Crow Wing and Beltrami counties, places like Bemidji, Park Rapids, Brainerd and Grand Rapids. These areas become much more populous and remain attractive cities for workers and families in their prime.

But life is not necessarily easy in those counties, case in point:

You see it all the time here in Itasca County, and I know the same is true down by Brainerd and over by Bemidji. Stratification. Some have 4,000 square foot log homes on big lakes, and others work multiple jobs to feed a family and keep a basic two-bedroom apartment. The economic struggle native people face on reservations is real, and so are the cultural barriers that keep things the same for all people in poverty generation to generation. In the woods, all manner of problems are easy for people in the big city to ignore. Trust me on this one. I’ve lived it.

Looking forward, however, we see that the areas that have grown the most since 1990 will continue to grow faster than the region’s biggest county: St. Louis.

By 2045, we see huge growth potential in Beltrami County (Bemidji) and notable growth in the Central Lakes region. We see population loss, however, in the Arrowhead — due mostly to decline on my native Iron Range. (Broken down by city, I’d bet Duluth continues slow growth over the next 30 years).

Stay with me now. Are you starting to see the divide between North Central and Northeastern Minnesota? Population (and poverty issues) in the North Central, and general decline and aging in the Northeast.

Here’s what I mean by aging, in two consecutive graphics:

Wow, right? Look at how people over age 65 will dominate the Arrowhead after 2045. Incidentally, if all goes to plan, I’ll be exactly 65 years old entering 2045. So, this is getting real. Where are the young people? The kids of our kids? Well, younger families will be more concentrated in North Central Minnesota counties.

In other words, if these projections prove true, we see two very different challenges for Northern Minnesota.

First, some counties will age dramatically (far faster than the state’s general aging pattern). This is something Ron Brochu of Business North reported on after a Regional Economic Indicators Forum breakfast this week.

Between now and 2030, Minnesota will experience an unprecedented increase in the age 65 and older population group, said Andi Egbert, assistant director of the Minnesota Demographic Center. During that period, 265,000 older adults will join that age segment.

“We have not ever been here before,” she said, and the change could have several implications:

• Because older persons are retired, there will be less savings and greater consumption.

• An older population will need more services, putting greater pressure on where public money will be spent.

• The labor force likely won’t be large enough, and employers will have greater difficult hiring.

• Costs for healthcare and long term care will grow.

• There will be a shortage of caregivers.

Yet, “We do anticipate the state will grow,” Egbert said, fueled largely by people migrating into Minnesota rather than the slight margin of births over deaths.

Yes, they’re talking about the state as a whole, but the effects are more pronounced in Northeastern Minnesota, which is why I quote Brochu’s story.

What about those younger demographics in North Central Minnesota? With the young families come the potential for more economic growth, but also the real possibility that if current poverty issues aren’t addressed, we have every reason to believe they will continue, straining public resources just as they do now.

So, when we continue to press for economic diversification on the Iron Range, know that the reason is because smart people have a pretty good idea of what’s coming if we don’t fundamentally change our economy. And no, hoping for “thousands” of nonferrous mining jobs isn’t the solution. Even if that happens (it won’t; we’ll get several hundred jobs spaced over a decade or two), mining jobs won’t come fast enough or in sufficient numbers to alleviate the actual problem: lack of economic diversity.

Furthermore, when we talk about addressing poverty through affordable housing and affordable college education, the reason is because population growth alone does not assure prosperity. As the Iron Range learned during its boom 100 years ago, education, work ethic, upward mobility and ambition for our children can literally re-write the economic fate of individuals and families.

This, more than mining, hockey or street dances on the Fourth of July, is the amazing accomplishment of Iron Range culture.

These trains have left the station, but there’s still a few switches we can pull. What’s missing is a sense of urgency. You can’t have a big train chase scene without a sense of urgency. Goodness, do you see what I see in these maps? What a challenge! What an opportunity! This is truly our time.

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This post was co-published on my Up North Report blog at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.


  1. Kari Knudson says

    Great article! I live in Bemidji and we are struggling with extreme poverty, population growth, overcrowded schools, and how to pay for it all. We have a school referendum is up for a vote on Tuesday and I am so scared that is not going to pass.

  2. I’m confused by extreme poverty and population growth in the same town. When jobs leave people leave. When you use your natural resources and create jobs people come. Look at North Dakota. I believe you are totally wrong on the jobs created by Polymet and copper mining. It’s always the case when someone is against logging, mining, oil drilling, pipe lines they say the amount of jobs created will be few. For every mining job there will be more than 2.5 jobs created servicing the mines, transportation and consumer needs. During the boom years of the Range more people serviced the mines than worked in them by the same ratio. Let’s use our natural resources up here on the Range. With the current climate of taxes in our state, businesses will not be rushing to the Range to have all the economic diversity you talk about.

  3. Population growth can often create stratification. As home values rise, so do rents and that freezes out people working in lower income jobs. You see this in big cities that have grown quickly. It’s pretty common.

    As for the mining claims, show me any example whatsoever of a developer that correctly stated job predictions years after the plant/mine/thing opened. These are routinely overstated. It’s a public relations and lobbying strategy. Believing these overestimates as gospel is naive. PolyMet has a vested interest in hiring as few people as possible to make a profit. That’s true of all businesses, but especially in modern mining. 350 is a very generous number for them, and Twin Metals estimates are even farther out of line with reality. Again, my personal opinion on mining has nothing to do with this. You would like to believe that I’m just some flame-throwing anti-mining advocate, but I’m not. You’re going to have to open your mind about who I am and why I write what I do. It’s not as simple as you think.

    As far as your taxes argument, we don’t need businesses to swoop in and “save the day” in exchange for tax breaks. WE MUST DO IT OURSELVES. Our communities must invest in themselves to attract families. Our own people must start businesses. Our existing businesses must feel empowered to do more in our communities. Elections matter. Action matters more than elections.

    • Independent says

      I agree with you Aaron on needing to diversify the NE Minnesota economy however your points on the impact of mining seem a little off. If you are unsure of the economic impact and the multiplier effect of every 1 mining job, stop by any of the mining operations on the Range and count the number of contractors and vendors working on their sites every day. Then add the truck drivers and off site fabrication shops with people building and fabricating equipment every day for them. The effect on the community is absolutely huge and far reaching and goes well beyond the direct hire employees.

  4. Aaron
    Why you assume “outside” businesses are evil and why locals are in a better position to start businesses is beyond me. Expound on your position; help us see the light:

    1) “WE MUST DO IT OURSELVES” – – Why? Why exclude “outside” investors?

    2) “Our communities must invest in themselves” – – Invest how? Whose money will be used to invest? Are you implying local government should reallocate how existing tax revenue is spent? Are you proposing new tax revenue? sales tax increases?, property tax increases? Other new taxes? Explain.

    3) “Our own people must start businesses” – – Setting aside your closed boarder thinking that it must be a locally born Ranger or someone with a Range address, what kind of businesses do you suggest? Expand. Give some realistic new business examples. Describe the demand for the product or service you envision. Explain why the Range is the best place to start a business to meet that demand.

    4) “Our existing businesses must feel empowered to do more in our communities”. – – Expand on that. Empowered to do what? What kind of risks beyond what current business owners already take do you want them to take?

  5. Bob, why must you pretend like you haven’t read my other writing on these topics and then act as though your job is to be a contrarian on every point I make? It’s very frustrating. It’s a waste of time.

    I’m not excluding anything or anyone; what I’m saying is that doing nothing and hoping outside investors will do everything is an objectively stupid strategy. How many posts have I written about how communities should invest in aesthetics, quality of life and education and less in consultants, payoffs and expensive concrete jungles on the edge of town? Surely hundreds, Bob, but if you need reminding that’s what I’m talking about. And when I talk about “starting our own businesses” I mean entrepreneurship, one of the rare things we agree about. It’s a big, beautiful blog, Bob. I’ve written millions of words here. Go read some them before you ask me to “expand.”

  6. There’s nothing wrong with outside investment if it is done right. I’ve read letters to MDN from people that are concerned about big box stores taking business away from locally owned businesses. We do need to diversify and do more locally so we are not wholly dependent on waiting for the next knight in shining armor to ride in and save us and be responsible for our own successes. Surely there are Iron Rangers which are talented enough, smart enough, willing to work hard and driven that will take personal responsibility and find their way to start new businesses and revitalize existing businesses.

  7. Millions of words Aaron…but no depth, no detail, no specifics.

    • The kind of details you want qualify as research analysis that people get paid $100 an hour to produce. I do what I can, for free, on the fly amid my actual job and freelance writing. If you have ideas, Bob, share them. I share my ideas based on my interests and activities. My goal here is to inspire action and share information. If you don’t like it, just go. It’ll be hard for me, but eventually I’ll get over it.

  8. Aaron Brown – “Population growth can often create stratification. As home values rise, so do rents and that freezes out people working in lower income jobs. You see this in big cities..”

    Here’s an interesting article recently in The Atlantic to your point Aaron:

    “On April 2, 2014, a protester in Oakland, California, mounted a Yahoo bus, climbed to the front of the roof, and vomited onto the top of the windshield.

    If not the year’s most persuasive act of dissent, it was certainly one of the most memorable demonstrations in the Bay Area, where residents have marched, blockaded, and retched in protest of San Francisco’s economic inequality and unaffordable housing. The city’s gaps between housing need and housing supply—have been duly catalogued.

    But San Francisco’s problem is bigger than San Francisco. Across the country, cities are struggling with affordable housing, to the considerable anguish of their middle class families.

    Among the 100 largest U.S. metros, 63 percent of homes are “within reach” for a middle-class family, according to Trulia. But among the 20 richest U.S. metros, just 47 percent of homes are affordable, including a national low of 14 percent in San Francisco.

    If you line up the country’s 100 richest metros from 1 to 100, household affordability falls as household income rises, even after you consider that middle class families in richer cities have more income. The relationship is clear: In general, richer cities have less affordable housing.

    But there’s a second reason why San Francisco’s problem is emblematic of a national story. Liberal cities have the worst affordability crises, according to Trulia chief economist Jed Kolko.

    In a recent article, Kolko divided the largest cities into 32 “red” metros where Romney got more votes than Obama in 2012 (e.g. Houston), 40 “light-blue” markets where Obama won by fewer than 20 points (e.g. Austin), and 28 “dark-blue” metros where Obama won by more than 20 points (e.g. L.A., SF, NYC).

    Although all three housing groups faced similar declines in the recession and similar bounce-backs in the recovery, affordability remains a bigger problem in the bluest (that’d be liberal) cities.

    “Even after adjusting for differences of income, liberal markets tend to have higher income inequality and worse affordability,” Kolko said.

    Kolko’s theory isn’t an outlier. There is a deep literature tying liberal residents to illiberal housing policies that create affordability crunches for the middle class.”

    So as you concluded Aaron, elections matter. We have one coming up. Let’s do what’s right.

  9. I can see both sides on the issue of investing in or expanding business by local people or outside investors. In my area, lately there have been some exciting new businesses and ventures created by local people. These have been creative, useful to locals, and also they have drawn in outside customers. The biggest problem I’ve seen with these businesses is that small businesses are very dependent on the individual owner or the partnership (often husband and wife) that own the business. They work their buns off. They do create jobs, and they serve a need. But if that person or couple has something else come up, then the business may just close. In one case I know of, having talked to the owner, the business was so successful and busy that the owner wanted to sell, so as not to work that hard (she has children.) But the business was for sale during the recent recession, so never sold. Now it is closed. So we are without her services. I’ve lived long enough to have seen a number of businesses in the Range cities got through the natural business life span of the owners, then close because of difficulties in selling, during recession and when the population has both fallen and aged. Older people just don’t need more new ____ . And of course, add in having more Big Box stores, that’s another stress on other businesses. Don’t forget the improvement in the roads, so people are more easily inclined to drive to Duluth to shop. And my Duluth friends are inclined to drive to the Twin Cities to shop.
    The internet also means we can look for cheaper prices with next day delivery. I have to drive an hour to buy certain supplies for my little home enterprise, but I can get delivery in less than 24 hours, so often that is the best choice. Many of us want better services and businesses close to home, but we undercut the local places at the drop of a hat. Ditto on what we are willing to pay for services. There’s that old song about “We don’t know what we got till its gone.” In a very small (range) town, that is very apparent.

  10. If you look at N Dakota you will see an example of what usually happens with successful ventures they hire way more than originally planned. In the Dakota’s they started out hoping to hire hundreds of workers then ended up hiring thousands. Same with oil sands in Canada. I’ve been involved in many business deals that have succeeded and everyone of them ended up hiring more than expected . That is called business. Only the Govt promises 10,000 jobs and delivers 1,000. Does “shovel ready” stimulus ring a bell? That is why I’m so upset with IRRRB, they have the one thing all businesses are looking for -CASH. They strike desperate business deal with shady folks (Essar) out of fear that they will look like they are not doing anything to help the Range. They have all the leverage but don’t know how to use it. Typical politicians, never ran businesses in their lives but are in charge of millions of dollars…. Golden Rule applies to IRRRB: if have the gold YOU make the rules…. Again basic business.

  11. Tammy Swedberglund says

    Neat how MN tax law discourages becoming an ossified gerontocracy by not allowing for the exclusion of retirement income .

  12. John Ramos says

    Only an idiot would say that this blog has no depth, detail or specifics.

  13. I’m unaware of the idiot who made that statement John. I said Aaron Brown has no depth, never goes into detail nor gives specifics on any idea he posts. He himself agreed. A very few of his fellow bloggers DO give detailed specifics with data and factual backup. I’d be one of those..

  14. I did not “agree.” You have again mischaracterized my words in an increasingly nonsensical and useless rhetorical exercise. Have a good day, Bob. Let’s start fresh and do something useful today.

  15. Nathan Johnson says

    I don’t see how Pine County as being one of the fastest growing counties in the State over the past 13 years will become one of the slowest growing counties in the State over the next 30-plus years. Nonsense.

    • It’s not just how the county has grown, but who’s moving there. Is it young families, or retirees living on the lakes and in the woods? The projects are based on such demographics. I can’t sit here and tell you they’re gospel; they certainly are best considered an educated guess.

  16. WHAT, quit so soon on this issue?
    Not even an ideological counter to the factually based ATLANTIC article?? Or did we win you over, you’re voting for policies which support affordable housing for the middle-class, cause less stratification, voting for Justin?

  17. There are some valid theories which suggest consistent contrariness and overly antagonistic trolling on the web may often be due to depression in the transgressor. The trolling is actually a desire for validation in many circumstances as a means of compensation. So, I sort of feel sad for people when I see those behaviors.

  18. If the topic were to understand and release repressed emotions and experiences of Rangers, conscious or otherwise, you might be on to something Trevor. It might be a fun topic to explore. However, the topic at hand is the Iron Range economy…past, current and future.

    Geez…why is it when liberals have to deal with facts surrounding an issue they troll, get personal, change the subject or just go quite. Could it be they’re stumped?

  19. John Ramos says

    I think R47 would benefit from a big group hug.

  20. John, I agree but you first.

  21. John Ramos says

    Sure, no problem.

    [reaches out across the blogosphere]

    Awwwww….c’mere, R47, you big lug.

  22. Aw, that’s sweet. You’re bigger, more compassionate person than I am!

  23. John Ramos says

    It’s the liberal way.

    (No, no, that’s all right, R47. Just let it out. I have all the tissues you need.)

  24. You guys are so sweet!

    Aaron…You’re blog is losing credibility letting your minions have the last say.

  25. Wait, here’s a thought. I’ll be in Balsam area deer hunting soon for a week or so. I’ll take you up on that group hug! Let’s meet at the Science Pines (I’ll have Mike reserve a table for us)….say Sunday night, Nov. 9th? I’ll come unarmed and I’ll buy the first round.

    Being it’s not far from Aaron’s place, maybe we could get him to show up as well…maybe even pick up Anzelc on the way! That’d really be fun. What’d ya say?

  26. I’d like to see you lock horns with Anzelc, Ranger. He’d blow you away.

  27. You’re invited as well Jackie…Let’s see if he has the balls to show up.

  28. Geeze, poor ole Ranger47 gets attacked by many folks here Minny Brown. I’ve known Tom Anzelc for 50 yrs, he’s a great guy to have a beer with but I disagree with his politics. Years ago we were on the same page politically, felt the Govt was lying to us about Vietnam war, didn’t believe the President, wanted Govt to leave us alone, believed our right to live the way we wanted was written in constitution, felt mandatory draft was wrong and finally felt we couldn’t trust anyone over 30…. Besides now trusting people over 30, I feel the same way. Back then I was labeled a long hair hippie liberal, now I’m a right wing nut job…… Very confusing to me.

  29. Don’t let ‘em confuse you Ken. Causing confusion is interwoven throughout the liberal strategy.

    Reading your post brings to mind – – I might have already had a beer with Anzelc…at the Vene-Qua! They used to have a Friday night bullhead feed in the ‘60’s and would gladly serve minors back then. It’s possible I might have already rubbed elbows with Tom and not even known it. Back then I didn’t give a crap about politics, let alone study political science like he did. Can you imagine spending FOUR years studying political science? That’s a classic oxymoron.

    Regardless, I might enjoy having a beer with him but the uncertainty is….the only Rangers I’ve never really cared for have all been politicians. The vast majority are phony, not sincere people. It’s possible he’s an exception. I hope to find out.

    We’ll see if John, kissa, Aaron, Jackie, Anzelc et al take me up on the offer to meet at the Science Pines a week from Sunday. The simple act of whether or not they RSVP will speak to their sincerity, their character. Plus, my family has taught me group hugs are good. So far though, dead silence…

  30. I do believe John was having a little fun with your super-serious self and you have more than played the part. At the risk of besmirching my character and that of seven generations of my people I will send my regrets. After the election I am retreating to my writing mode. But I do wish you, Mike and the boys a good hunt and a good, safe time in the woods.

  31. The most arguments I’ve had on the Range were at Tom & Jerry’s in Chisholm. About the time I realized that Uncle Ronnie was right on trickle down economics, Jimmy Carter”s reign of terror was over, the world was not fair (as my dad had said many times) and loving freedom in the USA was a good thing I would get into great arguments with my old DFL buddies. That is why I’m glad I found this site (thanks Aaron) see how fellow Rangers feel about our area.

  32. Uncle Ronnie was right about trickle down economics? Talk about living in a bubble..

  33. Trickle down economics 101: Iron ore is found on Range, company decides it is profitable to mine it, they hire miners, towns built, teachers, doctors, service industry comes, hundreds are employed, another company sees success they come another mine opens, another city built. There you have the Range story…. all started with Evil mining company deciding there was profit in the hard rock of N Minn…. Trickle down economics…….

  34. Maybe you think my broke Grandparents were given money by rich 1% to start mining or a company was formed by our Govt that started the Range….. That would be trickle up economics or socialism which ever term you prefer.

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