Koochiching County at the crossroads

PHOTO: daveynin, Flickr CC

Last Thursday, I was part of a panel for a “Policy and a Pint” forum about Northern Minnesota employment issues. The Citizen’s League and MPR’s The Current sponsored the event.

One of the big themes to emerge from the dialogue was the idea that Northern Minnesota needs to attract people. Returning young professionals, yes, but also new people. We need people to fill immediate job openings, but more people would also spur additional job growth.

This highlights our region’s central challenge. Our economy was self-evidently tied to a natural resource extraction focus. How do we transition to an economy that supports a smaller version of that industry, while attracting economic activity completely unrelated to that industry?

After the event I read this Greta Kaul story, “Can Koochiching County come back from the brink of economic doom?” in MinnPost. This borderland county includes its seat, International Falls, a town that has been through the wringer with the slow decline of its paper and timber industry.

From the Kaul story:

“Growth for the majority of counties is going to depend increasingly on migration, as deaths outnumber births (which) happens for the first time statewide in 2040,” [demographer Megan Dayton] said.

Nowhere is that trend more apparent than in Koochiching. In the last 70 years, Census records show, Koochiching County had a peak population of more than 18,000 people in 1960. That was the height of the baby boom, when the paper and fiberboard industry in Koochiching County were running hot. Since, the number has meandered generally downward, to about 12,700.

In addition to providing an economic challenge, population loss of that extent leaves county residents dwelling in infrastructure built for more people. This makes it harder to maintain civil infrastructure like schools, public works, police and fire departments.

In fact, some counties, cities and school districts in Northern Minnesota will likely be forced to consolidate with neighbors in the next 10-20 years. This will be difficult, but is probably necessary in some cases.

But all is not lost. As the story points out, and as I can attest having driven through Koochiching County over the weekend, this is a beautiful place to live.

From the story:

To the right people, the International Falls area isn’t a hard sell. It’s a slower pace of life, and a much lower cost of living than in the cities. And then there’s the natural amenities.

“If I leave work on a Friday, I could be on my dock on an island on Rainy Lake in about 20 minutes,” [Koochiching Economic Development Authority Director Paul] Nevanen said.

That’s the appeal across much of Northern Minnesota, from the Brainerd Lakes to the Iron Range to the North Shore. Quality of life and access to nature are the tickets to attracting new people who will allow a new economy to grew naturally as the old one fades or changes.

But a “quality of life” based economy will need to be marketed differently. Moreover, we will need to dedicate community efforts to supporting cultural activities that so many now regard as “extra.”

I don’t have all the answers, nor should you believe anyone who says they do. This will require a multi-faceted approach. But one of the most obvious short term strategies would be to listen to the young people who live here now, the young people who recently left, and people who might consider moving here. What do they want? Stop guessing. Start listening. The solutions lie in our midst like wild mushrooms and asparagus, ripe for harvest.

Never forget that this area is beautiful, fun, and full of good people. Next, add a sprig of welcome and a dash of open-mindedness. We might be surprised to find that Northern Minnesota’s best days lie ahead, not behind.


  1. Gerald S says

    The bad news for recruitment of young couples from the outside to this area is the schools.

    Falls has a lot of pluses. Rainy Lake is one of the most beautiful in Minnesota, and you could actually live there full time. Outdoor activities are off the scale. People are friendly. Housing is cheap. Commute times are minuscule and traffic jams nonexistent. A lot of young people starting families might conclude it might be worth buying a heavy winter coat to get some of those benefits.

    But like many towns in greater Minnesota and especially in the Northeast, the schools have performance results that are frankly miserable. Falls, for example, scores just 57.5% in reading, 44.8% in math, and 42.8% in science for their proficiency pass rates in the last round of state testing of their high school grads.

    Many area schools also have holes in their curricula from the point of view of kids wanting to seek admission to top flight competitive universities and colleges, and are unable to offer things that kids want. High speed internet might help schools fill some of those holes, but we don’t have that either.

    From Duluth to the Falls, from Grand Rapids to Grand Marais, we need to address this massive hole in our region’s attractiveness, because good schools are on the top of list for any young couples shopping for a less urban lifestyle, and in the age of the internet they will see the school performance data long before they start shopping for real estate, and cross us off their list.

  2. Something to think about is the lack of living-wage jobs, let alone jobs that would support a home, plus a cabin, plus the boat required to access the cabin, etc. While it is nice to be just 20 minutes from your dock on Rainy Lake, that is still a luxury out of the reach of the vast majority of families living in Kooch County right now. I am a college educated woman who has never been able to find a local full time job that would allow me to be financially independent. Its real and it stinks. I know there are some very successful people, but there is a virtual chasm separating them from the average household. Yeah, I love it here…but Rainy Lake, boating, fishing, snowmobiling, etc still require an expendable income. $10-$15 hr jobs are not gonna support that lifestyle. Even two of them. Decent, basic affordable homes and rental properties are scarce, as well, in my opinion. What age groups are you wanting to reach? Those with growing families? Those who have and value a good education? Those who will invest in our communuties? I agree about asking them what they want, but, then how will you deliver?

  3. Bill Hansen says

    The key is to support home grown entrepreneurs. They will be the job creators. There are a number of good strategies that help create a culture of entrepreneurship. Look at the Entrepreneur Fund, which already operates in Koochiching County, for just one example.

  4. Please keep in mind that there is more to Koochiching County than only International Falls, there are efforts in the outer reaches attempting to create industry and grow businesses.

  5. Re: Jobs
    I’ve been reading that there are jobs available across the country but employers are having a hard time finding employees to fill those jobs. Many of those available jobs are not low wage either. Lately, locally and anecdotally we have been hearing this is also an issue in northern MN with scarce applicants for jobs ranging from FEDEX drivers to auto mechanics. Why seems like a topic worth exploring.

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