Growing opportunity in rocky economic soil

PHOTO: Phil Simonson, Flickr CC

“He smiled and all his teeth were covered with tobacco stains
He said, “It don’t do men no good to pray for peace and rain.
Peace and rain is just a way to say prosperity,
And buffalo chips is all it means to me.
~Tom T. Hall, “Faster Horses”

We all say we want a sustainable, diversified economy for Northern Minnesota. These words, however, mean different things to different people.

For some, the phrase “economic diversification” conjures an image of tech geniuses on Segue scooters zipping around a well manicured corporate campus. For others, it means different kinds of mines. Sort of like Bob’s Country Bunker in “The Blues Brothers, which plays “both kinds of music: country AND western.”

The reality more closely resembles 18 months of arm-twisting that terminates in tulips planted along a small piece of public art where a heap of scrap metal used to be.

People seem to agree, however, that the status quo in rural Minnesota is untenable. Nobody’s getting ahead. The good old days seem better (even if they weren’t) because no one seems to like what’s coming.

Guess what? It’s happening everywhere like this.

In the pages of the Reykjavik Grapevine, an Icelandic newspaper, K.T. Browne penned a May 2, 2018 story titled “Is a lack of opportunity threatening small villages in Iceland?

Short answer: Já.

“We need more variety in jobs here in the area,” Hanna Dóra Björnsdóttir, principal of Skagafjörður’s Varmahlíðarskóli (a rural northern Icelandic elementary school) told Browne in her story. “Our area needs to be able to offer young people the same opportunities that they can have in other places.” Browne writes that according to Hanna, the average salary in the region is lower than in other areas. “That’s not good enough,” she told Browne. “It’s not helping, and that needs to be changed.”

Earlier this month, the Jobs Now Coalition reported that according to state employment statistics, the Arrowhead region of Minnesota has more than 6,800 job seekers competing for about 3,000 jobs. Those new jobs fall disproportionately in low wage professions. Compare that to nearly full employment in the Twin Cities.

Worse yet, of those Arrowhead jobs only 46 percent offer health care; only 24 percent require training beyond high school, and only 11 percent require a four-year degree. The median wage for these jobs is $11.55 an hour. The state estimates that in “an Arrowhead Region family of three with two workers—one full-time, one part-time—each worker must earn $15.25 per hour to meet basic needs.”

Yes, we can point to mining jobs paying much better than this. Mining jobs are also far less plentiful, even considering the strong market for iron ore or the prospect of new copper-nickel mines. Further, those thousands of low wage jobs must be done by someone. Whoever does them can work hard and still never get ahead. To change this, we must cultivate an economy that gives incentive to get educated for work in multiple fields, not just one or two. Ultimately, we need to get all workers to a living wage.

Still, it’s hard to find new ideas that don’t somehow circle back to old ideas.

In the May 9, 2018 edition of City Pages, Jacob Steinberg writes “The Miracle of Finland: What a tiny northern Minnesota town can teach America.”

Steinberg details the story of David and Lise Abazs, a couple whose solar-powered sustainable farm in Finland succeeds despite numerous reasons it couldn’t. It took years of work. But eventually they revitalized their rocky soil and found new markets for their goods along the North Shore. The watchword is sustainability.

Perhaps one lesson from this is that old ideas aren’t bad, we just have to make sure we enact them in the best possible way.

The Iron Range can’t employ 15,000 miners anymore, so maybe we could employ people to make the best, most advanced iron products possible. Perhaps those products could be turned into new goods right here.

We can’t out farm America’s bread basket, certainly not in Palo or Britt. But we can create a network of locally-grown produce and grains.

We can’t cut 150-year-old white pines anymore. But we can make valuable wood products near the site of sustainable harvesting.

Finally, we can invest in teaching kids how to write software and develop technology. If 1 out 100 Iron Range kids locates a business here, we’ll have paid for the effort ten-fold. Support for the arts could attract creatives into the tired downtowns of our old mining towns.

In other words, the answers to our problems aren’t as simple as “jobs” or “education” or even “hard work.” In fact, in Iceland they find that their old natural resource economy and growing tourism economy both conspire to snuff new ideas. Like them, we have to cultivate a field with poor soil into one with good soil, just like the Abazs farm in Finland, Minnesota. It’s not just about educating people; it’s about having a reason to educate them.

Thus there is really only one path forward, a hard one that we must somehow walk together, despite political or cultural differences. We must devote our energy to attracting people to live in our communities. We must dedicate ourselves to new ideas that might alter the world we know, which is on its way out anyway.

Now, we don’t have to. No one will make us do it. But from seaside villages in northwestern Iceland to the quiet streets of Keewatin or Hoyt Lakes, towns that don’t chart their own future will face gradual decline that can’t be wished, hoped, legislated or promised away.

Prosperity won’t come to those who wait around.

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, June 10, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

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