Ideas at heart of MPR Iron Range forum

Paddle boarders navigate the Pennington Pit at the Cuyuna State Recreational Area near the twin towns of Crosby and Ironton, Minnesota. I wrote about the Cuyuna Range's success in building a different concept for a local economy last year. (Aaron J. Brown)

Paddle boarders navigate the Pennington Pit at the Cuyuna State Recreational Area near the twin towns of Crosby and Ironton, Minnesota. I wrote about the Cuyuna Range’s success in building a different concept for a local economy last year. Organizer Aaron Hautala will be among speakers at an MPR Ideas Forum for the Iron Range on April 13, 2016. (Aaron J. Brown)

Aaron J. Brown

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

Every society has its elite. That might not seem possible here on the Iron Range, where ore dust still clings to old company houses and Mich Golden Light cans dot the ditches like poor man’s glitter.

But even the Iron Range has its elite: the professional meeting-attenders, money-handlers and vote-collectors. They aren’t all bad people. In fact, they are no better or worse than the population at large. It’s just that they have better-paying jobs where people stick Post-it notes to the walls of hotel convention centers in the belief that doing so will alter the future.

Good work if you can get it.

I’m a college teacher, journalist and public radio host, which is an imposing trifecta of elitism to some. I walk freely into the halls of power. When I show enthusiasm for the right things, I am rewarded with more access. When I scowl and stomp my feet, I am seated at one of the far tables. So it goes. I still get fed and I’m a long damn way from the trailer house where I grew up.

I bring this up because the “in” crowd has a certain way of handling the economic crisis we now find in Northeastern Minnesota. They start synergizing and dialoging. They worry about feedback loops and information silos.

If these terms are foreign to you, well, to quote Johnny Cash: “Country boy, I wish I was you and you was me.”

It’s not that meetings are bad (they’re an essential starting point) or that planning for the future is silly (it’s actually the crisis of our time). It’s that the world of the elite in any society is often an echo chamber, where admiring problems is indistinguishable from solving them.

But there is hope that some real, actionable ideas could emerge from one upcoming event. The speakers aren’t elected officials or the usual names you see in Iron Range newspapers. They are researchers, community volunteers and entrepreneurs.

On Wednesday, April 13, MPR brings “Minnesota’s Iron Range: Ideas for the Future,” to the Hibbing Community College Theater. Hosts include MPR Morning Edition host (and co-host of public television’s “Almanac”) Cathy Wurzer along with MPR’s Northern Minnesota reporter Dan Kraker.

The format will include a panel of speakers. Each will pitch their vision for the future of the Range from their unique point of view.

Among the panelists are Anna Anderson, CEO of Art Unlimited — a web and marketing firm in Angora of all places. She’ll speak with Shawn Wellnitz of the Entrepreneur Fund about strategies for encouraging new businesses in Northern Minnesota.

Rolf Weberg from the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) at UM-Duluth will talk about new possibilities in minerals. He’ll also talk about ways he thinks this controversial, polarized issue can be discussed without the rancor of the past decade.

Brendan Jordan from the Bioeconomy Coalition of Minnesota will talk about ways to make chemicals and fuels from plant material found in our area.

Aaron Hautala, volunteer president of the Cuyuna Lakes Mountain Bike Crew, will describe the Crosby-Ironton area’s success in attracting and retaining 21st century entrepreneurs and their workforce, as well as creating a vibrant local community.

Finally, the audience will hear from my colleague Jessalyn Sabin at Hibbing Community College. She is the cofounder of ReGen, a group working to build community and retain new talent on the Range. Sabin will speak to the role of young people in building quality of life and shaping the future of the region.

“It’s hard to pick one silver bullet that will solve the Range’s problems,” Sabin told me. “It will take multiple angles, so we need the viewpoints of more people.”

She stresses the ideas of positivity and inclusion. Existing institutions must invite and listen to new people if they are to succeed in our changing region.

“Minnesota’s Iron Range: Ideas for the Future” will take place Wednesday from 6-8 p.m. at the HCC Theater. Admission is free, but tickets are required. You can reserve your ticket at

This event certainly won’t solve the Iron Range’s problems in itself. Attending does not substitute the hard work all of us must do to improve our community’s future. But it will be refreshing to hear some ideas that don’t require us to wait for a permit or win an election. Time is short. Meetings are super-fun (not really), but people must leave with a to-do list, not just a free pen.

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 Sunday, April 10, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. Hi Aaron (or anyone who knows about this upcoming event):
    1. Do you know if this meeting will be recorded and available for people who can’t make it to the live event?
    2. Do you know how the people who are sharing their ideas were chosen to present?
    3. Do you know if it is a 1-time meeting or if there are follow-up sessions planned?
    (Maybe there are other people for whom this type of event would be a good way to get their Iron Range ideas heard, too.)
    Thank you!

  2. Kris Hallberg PhD, volunteer board member of Incredible Ely will also be interviewed by Cathy Wurzer tomorrow in Hibbing. As you know – and hopefully your readers do too:

    A Small Business Conference ( is being held at the Grand Ely Lodge Apr 27-28th. There’s still room to register! We’ve been planning this conference for over a year along with the Entrepreneur Fund and UMD’s CED (Center for Economic Development). Former mayor of Duluth, Don Ness, will be the keynote on Wednesday (4/27) night.

    The conference idea seed came from the the exact realization you write about in this posting; small ideas are the big ideas of this time – because we now have ways to connect that we never had before. Which is better for a community, one large employer (think Lockheed Martin in Littleton CO in the 1980s) or many small ones? Your answer will depend on who you are; the latter has little to no back-slapping, hand-shaking, vote-getting appeal. I could write (a lot) more Aaron, but just want to say Thank you for your continuing coverage of Northern MN from a GenX-ers view point. Now get to work people – creative people! We are used to rolling up our sleeves and digging in 🙂

    For the Apr 27-28th conference we’re hoping for 100 participants; small businesses wanting to grow / stabilize as well as aspiring entrepreneurs. So far we have 46 registered. As an organizer I do believe in quality not quantity, but on the other hand I’m POSITIVE there are at least 54 more people out there reading this blog and/or listening to MPR’s segment this week, that have had the same seed planted, “so what would it be like to work for myself?…..can small (creative) businesses find ways to support each other, to make all stronger?”

    If you haven’t yet had that seed planted within or are one of the “elite” Aaron talks about, there are other ways to dig in: support the efforts underway of those “creatives” that have been working in the garden for a while. For example, Ely’s Art and Music celebration GOING ON NOW ( This is a 2-week long collaborative effort between a 25+ year old nonprofit, Northern Lakes Arts Association and a start-up event planning company called Stone Soup Events. Come take a studio tour on Saturday (4/16) to see glassblowers and canoe builders in action (details on the NLAA web site, above) or come up on Friday night to see the new Cinderella story (a fantastic community musical that makes democracy sexy again).

    It’s happening here. Dig in and enjoy!

    Heather Hohenstein
    Vermilion Community College adjunct instructor

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