No place like our place

PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown

Regular readers know that I push for economic diversification and independence on the Mesabi Iron Range. For too long we on the Mesabi have allowed our lives to be defined by outside forces.

The most obvious external influences are mining companies. They’re the reason our towns exist but also the reason we live in a boom and bust economy. I would also include the myth that some perfect configuration of an external government — one that runs interference for the mining industry, votes for “our stuff,” and gives us the most money — will protect us from obvious national economic and technological trends.

These days it feels like most of my fellow Iron Rangers are content to keep pushing the latter philosophy. I could be wrong, but it feels that way. That’s what the letters to the editor, social media comments and gas station chatter seem to support.

And I suppose I’ve reached the point in this debate where I can simply say, if that’s what you think, go for it. Try it. See how it turns out.

But for those who see the Iron Range economy for what it is — unbalanced and insufficient to maintain our current institutions — perhaps we could do something about that? Yes, I think so.

When you flip a house, you don’t sell it and then fix it. You fix it and then sell it. Wouldn’t work any other way.

The Iron Range is quite literally built for mining. That’s one of the reason new mining proposals are such attractive ideas to people who live here. As long as “someone” is willing to put in hundreds of millions of dollars in capital, “we” don’t have to do much. But I think most — even those in the mining industry — understand that mining alone won’t create a vibrant local economy or strong communities. We need more. Just ask a teenager or college student. They’ll tell you.

The problem, as anyone who works in local economic development has long ago learned, is that the Range isn’t necessarily built to attract modern entrepreneurs in tech or creative fields. We see isolated success stories, but usually involving lots of government subsidies. We fail to create a self-generating economy that runs parallel to mining.

To achieve that end, we have to start very, very small. Block by block. What can we do to inspire ideas in people who live here and who visit here? What could improve the value of property and place?

That’s where the idea of “creative placemaking” comes in.

I know the Iron Range needs more buzzwords like it needs a deer in the front grill of its pickup truck. But the idea behind creative placemaking couldn’t be more relevant to our goals. It’s not new, but rather something Range towns once did as a matter of pride, but that have fallen by the wayside due to neglect and changing economic fortunes.

What makes a town look good? It’s not just picking up the trash, it’s also what you see when you enter the town. Do you see industrial parks and empty lots, or do you see a statement of the town’s identity? It’s little details like decoration, banners and landscaping. Building small places within larger places that welcome people and invite creativity. We must bring people INTO the heart of town, not send them to the edges.

Not only is the concept not new, but it’s happening! Iron Range community groups, often led by groups of young professionals, are making great strides in places like Bovey, Chisholm and Virginia.

On Wednesday, Sept. 20, the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council will hold a session called “Creative Placemaking for the Iron Range.” The event takes place from noon to 3 p.m. at the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Mineland Reclamation Building at the Minnesota Discovery Center in Chisholm.

The event is designed to coincide with the opening of the fiscal year 2018 grant cycle for the IRRRB Downtown and Business Corridor program. An IRRRB grant specialist will be on hand to answer questions and give direction to those who bring ideas. Ideally, conversation leads to visible action. Grant applications will be accepted Nov. 1 through Nov. 30. The program considers ideas from cities, nonprofits, and informal community groups.

Here’s the schedule:

Noon — Bring your own “brown bag” lunch and discussion
1 p.m. — Presentation on Creative Placemaking and how ARAC or IRRRB grants could help
2 p.m. — carpool tour of downtown Chisholm revitalization projects
3:30 — Recharge the Range Creative Communities subcommittee

The event is free and open to the public.


  1. The unique characteristic of the Iron Range is that it was, with the exception of indigenous people, completely unpopulated. It began on date certain, and some of us are old enough to retain some history personally, back to the beginning of the century, through our parents and grandparents. I think all of these little villages and towns should begin labeling historic houses with the original owners and their successors, as they do in “tony” towns like Haddonfield New Jersey. Houses, both noble and simple, if they are of a certain age, have plaques on the front of the house telling the year of its build, and the family that built it or lived in it. This information is still available. But we’re all getting older and these things should be done now, before it is all gone. Historical societies that are vigilant in seeing to it that some history is retained are key. Even the little mining houses are very interesting to those who live on the Range and those who visit. They just have to be cleaned up.

  2. Aaron, you probably have read the recent Minnpost article, The Future of Greater Mn..a lot like Montevideo. Companies outside the cities are having a tough time filling available jobs. Survey of heads of greater MN companies cite lack of internet services and trained skilled workers as big factors.

    I know this is as true in our NE are as in SW MN. I’ve been hearing this for quite awhile from area business owner and managers. They are getting few or no applicants to fill open trade/skilled jobs. For one thing, baby boomers with the skills and decades of experience are retiring leaving gaps. I know of retirees who were recruited to do some well-paid contract work by companies desperate to fill in those job gaps. I know of two people with Iron Range family and roots who moved back up north from the cities after being offered excellent salaries, one a manager at large company and the other with specialized skills.

    The ball seemed to have been dropped in business and education collaboration in funding skilled training in recent decades.

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