New vision for Range future


Aaron Brown interviews the creators of the Ely-made cereal sensation “Crapola,” Andrea and Brian Strom (and their daughter Amelia), during the June 14, 2014 Great Northern Radio Show in Ely, Minnesota. Crapola is one example of a unique business finding a way to succeed in a small Northern Minnesota town.

Aaron J. Brown

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

Life was hard for people who lived along Minnesota’s iron ranges 100 years ago. Working conditions in the mines were dangerous. Women had few rights. Nevertheless, it’s remarkable how much aspiration and hope these people delivered to future generations.

Just read what they put on the walls.

Found in the Keewatin City Council chambers are several sayings related to education, among them a Bible verse, “They that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament.” (Daniel 12:3)

Above one of the entrances to the Mesabi East School in Aurora is another Bible verse, “Where there is no vision the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18)

Whether or not you believe in the religious interpretation behind these phrases, they provide an important, visceral sense of what Iron Range founders wanted future generations to hold dear. They may have been immigrant miners, but these impoverished people didn’t want their children to be duped, or deviated from grander purpose. They wanted to inspire.

We need that inspiration today.

With more than 2,000 miners currently out of work, nearly half the mining workforce of the Mesabi Iron Range, talk has turned to economic diversification. Unfortunately, our region has a history of addressing this important issue only in times of crisis. What needs to be remembered is that the mining economy, even in times of strength, has gradually shed jobs. This has left a massive hole in our region’s economy, filled with poverty, unemployment and underemployment.

During another downturn 15 years ago, scores of millions of dollars were spent on big proposals like Essar Steel and the Mesaba Energy Project in pursuit of jobs. Essar, of course, is mired in continued financial problems, while Mesaba Energy has been recorded as one of the biggest failures in Iron Range economic development history. These are the inherent dangers of swinging for the fences in desperate times.

Another approach to economic development has more to do with what we can do here, with the people, places and ideas we can generate locally.

That’s the inspiration behind the first-ever Incredible Ely Small Business Conference April 27-28 at the Grand Ely Lodge. The conference is a collaborative effort between Incredible Ely, the Entrepreneur Fund, and the University of Minnesota-Duluth Center for Economic Development (UMD-CED).

The conference will include sessions about planning, starting and growing a new business, how to use financial software and financing options. It will also address marketing, including how to use social media, do-it-yourself website development, how to get involved in export markets and special programs for women-owned businesses. All of these things represent important ways that people on the Iron Range can seize their own economic destiny on a small, local scale.

Kris Hallberg is one of the organizers of the conference and co-chair of Incredible Ely, an economic development and downtown business advocacy group in this small mining town on the Vermilion Range. Hallberg is a former World Bank economist who moved to Ely and ended up drawn into the Incredible Ely organization.

Economic development in Ely is potentially rife with controversy, something Hallberg’s group minds closely. Not everyone there agrees on the merits of nonferrous mining, for instance. But Incredible Ely’s goal is community building and economic diversification, which Hallberg says serves the Iron Range regardless of what happens with mining.

“We’re tying to find something people can agree on that can bring the community together,” said Halberg. “We’re aiming for a larger more diversified economy. That is certainly needed, especially when you look at the longer term. I think people agree on that objective. Talking about a common goal has worked well.”

Hallberg said that Ely is starting to see new growth spouting from the way the community has attracted new people and downtown business investment.

“We see these people moving up here and enjoying life here,” said Hallberg. “Then they realize that, through the internet, they can start businesses here.”

The Incredible Ely Small Business Conference on April 27-28 will feature a keynote address by former Duluth mayor Don Ness. It’s open to people throughout the region. If you are interested in the conference, see www.IncredibleEly/conference. The registration deadline is April 18.

Even if you can’t attend the conference, inspiring ideas are worth sharing. Now is no time to wait. Nor is it time to give up. Now is time to gather in the town square and find a new way forward for the future of the Iron Range.

Because without vision, our communities will perish.

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. This piece first appeared in the DATE edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


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