To build Iron Range economic hopes we must keep working

Aaron J. Brown

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

The steam cloud pouring out of the stack at Keewatin Taconite once again guides my daily commute from the wilds of Itasca County into Hibbing. For nearly two years, the eastern sky bore only the unforgiving blaze of the sun. Now fluffy white billows remind that hundreds of miners are back at work.

Unfortunately, KeeTac’s comeback is only a chapter in the economic recovery of the Iron Range, a middle one, not even central to the overall plot. Our economy has been changing for decades and we are on the cusp of a new era — one that may or may not include economic strength for our region.

Many community conversations began when the iron mining industry hit the skids in 2015 and ’16. From the IRRRB’s “Recharge the Range” to other forums sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio, a sense of urgency to diversify the Iron Range economy grew. Now that the mines are running again, however, these initiatives fall off the front page of local newspapers.

We must not lose focus on the issue of economic diversification. A strong period for iron mining is the *best* time to diversify. And we’ll be glad we did during the next inevitable downturn.

We’ve got some success to work with.

Just this month, the University of Minnesota-Duluth Center for Economic Development announced a $100,000 grant for three important initiatives. The grant was part of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC) Portable Assistance Project, the first of its kind in Minnesota.

First, the funds will support the Iron Range Makerspace in Hibbing as it opens its new location in the former VFW building on the Beltline this June. Second, it will establish the Iron Range Entrepreneurship Center in the Makerspace location. This will provide guidance, support and training opportunities for entrepreneurs through the Small Business Administration. Third, the grant will support next fall’s Incredible Ely Business Conference, another diversification-focused initiative entering its second year.

“There is much being said about iron communities, but not enough is being done,” said UMD CED Director Elaine Hansen in a press release. “This important partnership is dedicated to finding solutions for those people and places that bear the brunt of changes in the iron economy. UMD’s Center for Economic Development is committed to bringing resources and opportunities to those most impacted.”

Meanwhile, Recharge the Range will host its first “Entrepreneurs on Tap” event on May 11 at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm. Starting with a social hour at 5:30, the event also features networking opportunities and a brief presentation by three successful new small business owners on the Iron Range. The event is free, but they’re asking you register in advance.

PHOTO: Iron Range Makerspace, LLC

Also at the Minnesota Discovery Center, the Iron Range cultural center announced its first Museum Summer Concert Series. The series opens June 22 with The Pines featuring Keith Secola. Future shows include July 6 with Reina del Cid, Aug. 24 with the Cactus Blossoms, and Sept. 21 with Ben Kyle. As the host of a Minnesota radio variety show, I can attest these are high quality Minnesota acts that boast a serious “cool factor.” (Even if it’s not exactly “cool” to say it that way).

In downtown Virginia, the Lyric Center for the Arts has begun renovating its storefront. By next fall, the former Lyric Opera House will feature more gallery and performance space. It’s all part of a long term plan to restore the gorgeous original opera house for major productions.

In Grand Rapids and Hibbing, new brew pub projects aim to capitalize on the interest in craft beers as a source of socialization and culture. Boomtown, owned by a pair of Eveleth restaurateurs who also run the Whistling Bird in Gilbert, will expand to the former Zimmy’s location in Hibbing. On the western Mesabi, the new Rapids Brewing Company seeks to put a brew pub in the former Rialto Theater building. Meantime, Cantankerous Brewery is renovating a warehouse on SE 10th St. in Grand Rapids.

These are just a few of the projects and happenings I’ve been following. There are others. Some of these initiatives will create lasting jobs, while others are just a start. The important thing is that they all speak to making Northern Minnesota a better place to live.

That’s a crucial accomplishment. Our economic future depends upon people moving here and young people moving back. We must give them social and cultural reasons, not just limited jobs in one or two industries. If people are excited to live here, they will be excited to move here, start businesses, and convince their bosses to let them work here remotely.

The bottom line is this. Don’t let anyone tell you that the Iron Range is dead. New projects spurred by a new generation offer inspiration to anyone looking for it. But we live during a very fragile period in Iron Range economic history. Old powers remain tied to industries destined to shrink due to automation and global competition. Good jobs for some, but not all.

We must use our strength and smarts as a region to diversify our economy. That means supporting the projects I’ve mentioned here, or thinking up ideas of your own.

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 23, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. independent says

    I completely agree Aaron, now is the time to keep our foot on the gas and not let up on pushing diversification. Although part of my deversification plan would also include expanding our mining base to include copper, nickel and pmg’s. All of the above!

  2. #Growbovey is another great initiative started by three business owners who haven’t taken it upon themselves to turn the small town into a unique shopping destination in lieu of the turnover in the mining industry. A new full service restaurant, antique mall, occasional shops and soon a bike rental repair shop for avid mesabi trail enthusiasts. Their story is worth a drive as they have bought restored old buildings back to life.

    • It’s funny you mention that, Rachelle. I had already submitted this column when we went down to Nana Chelle’s this week for the first time! I was very impressed with everything Bovey is doing. I’ll be back, and maybe I can dedicate a new piece to that effort in the future.

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