Rethinking strength of Iron Range towns

Chisholm, Minnesota

Chisholm, Minnesota

Aaron J. Brown

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

The small working class towns of Minnesota’s iron ranges were founded for a profoundly simple purpose. Each village cut into the thick forests of Northern Minnesota to provide housing and supplies within walking distance of an iron mine.

Few towns grew beyond that purpose. Dozens were were abandoned after a decade or two. As the vast mineral wealth of the Mesabi Iron Range became apparent, more diverse urban amenities arose — restaurants and social halls, opera houses and zoos.

Yet, mining remained king. Even Hibbing, the largest and most developed city on the Mesabi, was forced to move south in the 1920s, hurling a brand new Carnegie library into a pit in order to allow access to the ore beneath.

Some would call this ancient history, but not really. The biggest Iron Range public project of this generation involves moving Highway 53 to access ore. In Hibbing, the iconic Hull Rust Mine View, remote controlled airplane field and disc golf course will all have to move by 2018 to accommodate mining.

Historian Pam Brunfelt calls the Iron Range an “industrial frontier.” Geographically remote, it nevertheless functions as an important and ever flexing element in America’s industrial story.

That story is changing again.

Modern taconite mines cover huge swaths of land outside towns, so no miners walk to work anymore. They also employ fewer people, with more automation and consolidation expected in the future. As a result, while mining remains a huge chunk of our region’s economy — moving our roads and attractions as it needs — mining no longer drives employment and prosperity in our communities as fervently as it once did.

We see the results of this reality in our towns, from declining school enrollments to decaying infrastructure and housing stock. We are paying the price for 100 years of planning boom to bust, rather than beyond the repetitive cycle of mining. But that doesn’t mean we can’t start fresh.

This week, a Minnesota-based planning organization with an international following is coming to the Iron Range in a tour sponsored by the IRRRB. Strong Towns was created by Charles Marohn, a former civil engineer from the Brainerd area who grew disillusioned with unsustainable spending projects in small towns. He wrote an op-ed in last week’s paper about what he does and why.

You’d be right to be skeptical about such a character coming to town. After all, we’ve got plenty of our own consultants and money-changers to tell us what we ought to do with our tax dollars. But what’s unique about Chuck and his organization is that Strong Towns sells ways for us to keep and better use our tax dollars inside our communities. He’s not selling a boom, he’s selling a way to make towns sustainable, so that they endure booms and busts with the same dignity and purpose they had when they were founded.

Several Iron Range Strong Towns events are slated this week.

At noon on Monday at the Old Central School in Grand Rapids, a panel discussion will be held about the role of tourism and the arts in bringing people back to the Iron Range. A Curbside Chat about the Strong Towns model will be held from 6-8 p.m. at Timberlake Lodge.

Another Curbside Chat will be held from 4-6 p.m. Tuesday at Barr Engineering in Hibbing. Wednesday brings yet another Curbside Chat at the Mesabi East School in Aurora.

The week culminates Thursday in Virginia with a panel discussion about how to build a strong economic development ecosystem in your town. That event runs from noon-1 p.m. at the Lyric Center for the Arts on Chestnut Street. That evening from 6-8 a Curbside Chat will be held at Mesabi Range College.

Community members are invited to attend these events and discuss the alternative economy and the Strong Towns approach. (Follow at

The cities of the Iron Range face many challenges. Changes in the mining industry is one obvious uncertainty. How the region can diversify its economy is another. But one of the biggest questions people can answer with less ambiguity: What can we make of our communities today?

Don’t just wait for funding; better deploy the resources we already have. I look forward to the conversation.

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, May 15, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. I’ve never been a visionary type of person. But i have read that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results.

    So possibility thinking is to be applauded. Nay Sayers will always get the same answer.

  2. OK, so I read Marohn’s op-ed, but I have no idea what he is really peddling.

  3. Ranger47 says

    I’m with you Alan. I listened to his TEDx talk and read through his website. It’s certainly not clear what he’s selling. He’s definitely against wider, flatter, straighter streets…but he doesn’t say what he’s for.

    I hope we’re not paying him anything.

  4. Can’t read the op-ed. The new Hibbing and Virginia paper websites always die about half way through a story. Happens on two different computers.

  5. Gray Camp says

    FYI – I was at the Hibbing “talk” yesterday. Strong Towns main message is that municipalities (regardless of size) need to develop both residentially and commercially in ways where the long term economics work. The taxes received over the lifetime on a property need to be adequate to cover the expenses on the municipal services to that property over it’s lifetime (roadway repairs, pipe repairs, snow removal, police, fire, etc.). In general, they’ve found that older types of development make economic sense for communities, and many of the newer types of “sprawl” development that have occurred in the past 50 years do not generally make economic sense (Gray Camp commentary – or are not assessed enough in current formulas), leaving municipalities in a world of hurt as infrastructure fails and repairs come due. He got a bit into small incremental things that can be done by the people of the community to improve the blighted, but economically viable parts of the community. I guess they are a non-profit who bring in operating expenses from grants (Blandin Foundation – 3 year) [and possibly from some consulting drummed up from these speaking events].

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