Iron Range battle for future of IRRRB


With last week’s announcement that Tony Sertich is leaving his post as Commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) to lead the Duluth-based Northland Foundation, a sudden sense of drama has enveloped the Iron Range political scene.

Gov. Mark Dayton will need to appoint a replacement amid a swirling sea of local political and economic factors. First, this appointment will be loosely based on leadership and qualifications of the appointee, but it also reflects a political choice as to the role the governor thinks the agency should take in his final term of office.

Bill Hanna of the Mesabi Daily News penned a Sunday feature about the situation, focusing on the fact that former State Sen. and current lobbyist Ron Dicklich was angling for the IRRRB commissionership.

Several Range lawmakers were quoted in the report, each offering different theories. It seemed there was some effort, either on the part of some lawmakers or Hanna, to elevate the name of IRRRB economic development director and former Virginia mayor Steve Peterson.

I can’t imagine that Dayton’s decision will come down to just Dicklich and Peterson, however. Both of them represent some version of the status quo. For instance, Rep. Joe Radinovich, a current IRRRB board member, just lost his House 10B seat. Regarded a rising DFL star who happened to be in a conservative district, Radinovich would be a fresh face and next-generation option for the agency. An open posting would probably yield half a dozen names from Iron Range politics and public service that would be worth a look, including young professionals, women and unique voices. Such an open process would be my recommendation.

As I wrote last week, Sertich’s biggest legacy will probably be his quiet but steady efforts to direct the IRRRB’s mission into improving local schools, curriculum and technical education. The agency is probably best known on the Iron Range for its public works spending and beyond the Iron Range for its large-scale economic development projects that went awry.

For perspective, however, consider this quote from my friend Rep. Tom Anzelc (DFL-Balsam Township) in the Sunday MDN story:

Anzelc said regardless who is named commissioner, he wants to see more attention to diversifying the Range economy than has been done by recent commissioners.

“We know how difficult economic development is to do. But the IRRRB mission is to diversify the Range economy. When we have something with wood products or mining we need to pursue it with vigor,” he said.

“But all of us are frustrated and let down … and we are letting down the people of the Range … by not being able to attract private sector manufacturing and IT. And it doesn’t matter if it’s been Sandy Layman, Jack DeLuca or Tony Sertich (as commissioner), the outcomes have not been that good.”

I am by no means unbiased here. Tom and I are close, and we talk about this stuff all the time. But I hope everyone is paying attention to what he said, because it matters very much to this discussion.

The paradox of the IRRRB is that it is funded by mining and charged with diversifying the economy. Very few successful organizations are able to perform a mission dramatically different than their funding source. Howard Hughes made a hit movie and got a giant wooden plane to fly on tool manufacturing money, but it’s hard to call what he did an unqualified success, and so it goes for the IRRRB.

What’s happened instead is a general continuation of the mining economy we know: constant project-based striving punctuated by small successes and large failures.

The next commissioner, regardless of their age, regardless of their political experience, regardless of their gender, race or identity, must know how to navigate the stormy waters of the current Range political scene with a fixed eye on the region’s economic future beyond the wake.

That’s no easy task. Maybe it’s an impossible task. No IRRRB commissioner has ever been considered a total success; none have avoided controversy or frustration. But it’s an important task, and Gov. Dayton has a tough call ahead.

As far as the future of the Iron Range goes, however, we shouldn’t place too much emphasis on this IRRRB business. When the Iron Range is ready for a modern economy, it will be because of people in the towns and communities, building and dreaming a new world on the giant Mesabi. When the people act, in bigger and broader numbers, the power brokers will be swept along.

Meantime, it wouldn’t hurt, and would greatly help for the Iron Range’s only unified government entity to be focused on creating an economy for the next generation of Iron Rangers, people who will code, program and design even more than they’ll mine ore or cut timber. I would look forward to working with such a commissioner and such an IRRRB.


  1. My God Aaron….Radinovich? Let’s list the criteria, job qualifications that are required first.

  2. If Radinovitch was put in place I would think that a lot of DFLers would be rather ticked.

  3. I’m pleased that Anzelc has at least said that if a project includes wood or mining we pursue it. We have wood and mining up here why wouldn’t we use that as a jumping off point for jobs…. Years ago a man who was looking to start a drill bit manufacturing plant in the USA came here from Texas in the late fall to check out the bits used by blasting crews in the mines. He was taking about fracking and shale oil being an up and coming industry and he wanted to be on the front end of the bits that would be used. After he toured the mines he said “hell if it don’t have to do mining or timber what else would the folks up here do”? He followed that up by saying in Texas we have cows and oil, that is what we do best and that is why we produce jobs and make money. Made perfect sense back then, still does… He lost out on his IRRRB money because we were dead set on windmills by Minntac, his plant now employs over 100 high paid workers and we have eye sores off hwy 169.

  4. You summarize it well Ken – “play to your strengths” has never failed…in sports, in life, in economic success. It takes far less energy to be highly successful when exploiting a God given talent or inherent competitive edge (ore & woods) than without either. However, the IRRRB has no motivation to think rationally being they’re playing with others money, not their own. It’s crony capitalism at work, at its best, with minimal chance of doing good.

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