Good money versus bad money in Range development

Construction at Essar Steel near Nashwauk, Minnesota, as seen May 2015. (Aaron J. Brown)

It’s been dizzying to follow developments in the Mesabi Metallics iron ore project near Nashwauk this week.

Last week we learned that billionaire Tom Clarke and his Chippewa Capital Partners won back state mineral leases for the former Butler Taconite property. But that came with the news that Clarke’s other company ERP Iron Ore, which took over the Magnetation property, teetered on the ropes.

Since then, ERP indeed filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Clarke told the Duluth News Tribune he would instead scrap the three former Magnetation plants on the Mesabi Range.

Meanwhile, the $900 million in private financing reported by Mesabi Metallics includes complications that raise skepticism. This according to ongoing coverage from Jerry Burnes in the Mesabi Daily News.

Chief among the concerns is that the financial backers Clarke cited include former Essar Global financiers, the Ruia brothers. Across the board, Iron Rangers seethed. No one wants the same people behind the failed Essar project to get a second chance with the Mesabi Metallics reboot.

Additional doubts grew from Clarke’s claim that he had contacted rival Cleveland-Cliffs about buying the iron ore mined at Nashwauk for its multi-owner Hibbing Taconite plant.

Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves shot that proposition down cold. Goncalves also suggested that Clarke wasn’t telling the truth about reaching out to him. The two companies remain mired in litigation over Cliffs’ purchase of critical land around the Mesabi Metallics plant site.

Much of this remains in spin, as they say.

I bring all of this up to raise a question, I hope an honest one.

All of the big proposed mining projects on the Iron Range — from this one to PolyMet and Twin Metals — will eventually come down to financing. Either domestic or international investors pour billions into the Mesabi Range or they don’t.

In this, what criteria do we use to determine if the money is “good” or “bad?” Is there such a thing? That’s my question.

If an investor has fallen short in the past, are they dead to us? Who are “we” to even say? What if we have reason to doubt an investor? Or doubt that, tomorrow, they’ll keep the promises made today by the developers?

I guess that’s my concern. “We,” the people of the Iron Range, have no control over the financing. None. The best we can do is implore. And that’s worth plum nothing to a global corporation or the kinds of big time investors who circle around proposals like this.

A hundred years ago the Oliver Mining Company, though controlled by the J.P. Morgan and the Steel Trust, boasted relatively local leadership. William Olcott perched in Duluth. Michael Godfrey lived across the street from Hibbing City Hall. As the industry consolidated, we saw their power shift back to Cleveland, Pittsburgh and New York. This was to the detriment of the Iron Range.

But now, locals cheer on Cleveland-based, Florida-dwelling Goncalves as the hometown favorite. This is mostly based on the fact that he has been verified a human being, not a nebulous holding group indistinguishable from a vaporous apparition.

It only shows how the locus of control, at least when it comes to mining, continues to shift farther and farther from First and Howard in downtown Hibbing.

And that, to me, is a sign that “we,” the people of the Iron Range, need to spend more time worried about outcomes we can control.

A project that improves our community, making it more attractive to visitors, future residents and entrepreneurs, will pay for itself. Heck, our sweat equity can provide the bulk of the “financing.”

We owe the Mesabi Metallics matter our attention and should hold officials accountable. Value-added iron ore production is a critical regional goal. But, trying to sort out “good money” from “bad money” is tricky business.

Doing good is not. And that’s the one thing we can do, no questions asked.

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, July 22, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Toni Wilcox says

    In the meantime Outside Magazine cited Crosby as one of the country’s smartest small towns for developing bike trails and planning to add more outdoor adventure options to draw both visitors and new residents. (Though they did mess up a little for saying the town is in “Minnesota’s Iron Range” without specifying.

  2. Bruce Momon-Rogers says

    Aaron, an old mentor of mine once told me: “
    Every once in a great while, we have the opportunity to Stand up and Be Counted for something we believe in”. With this column, I think you just have…Proud of you sir!

  3. As a Cliffs investor and general supporter of Lourenco Goncalves’ vision for resurrecting Cliffs, I applaud you for not needing to pick a side in this saga in order to bring up a much needed point. I wish there to be success for the Butler/Essar/Chippewa project and ultimately a pig iron or EAF-feedstock plant at that site. I also know that competition is good for Cliffs, but that unfairly supported competition (what good are deadlines if they are always extended and partially-met?) is not good for the industry at large, so I am conflicted on how to feel about Tom Clarke’s venture.

    I think the outrage some have about the revelations of the project are sparked from the fact that Tom Clarke’s business life has not followed the values you mention in this article. Though I agree that doesn’t make it “bad” money in and of itself, it’s legitimate concern that should spark an investigation into how the State handled the situation. I know you agree with that assessment.

    Keep up the good work.

  4. Bill Hansen says

    Not to mention, in this era of Citzens United, the corrupting influence of big money on our politics.

  5. JT Haines says

    There are such things as objectively terrible companies we should democratically resist doing business with though, yes? I fear I may be missing the point here (other than focusing on doing good with local projects we can control, which I certainly agree with). PS, I’m speaking of course about Glencore. I defer to Range expertise on the iron related companies discussed in this piece.

    • That’s a fair point, J.T. I guess what I was getting at was that people were upset about this case because a company failed to deliver the jobs and treasure it promised, something that few on the Range were connected enough to predict. I think individual companies have public track records that can be assessed objectively. We get into some choppy water when we try to sort “money” into “good and bad” because we don’t typically know much about the investors. They behave almost like a hive of bees, somewhat predictable but still mysterious.

      Even assessing companies can get a little tricky. We have to figure out what practices are the nature of industry and regulation, what can be isolated to the company’s values and practices, and what is just our own hope for a desired outcome. We have to assess what would make Glencore, for instance, different than U.S. Steel or Cliffs. I think all of that is fair game for discussion, but most folks (present company excluded) aren’t particularly informed about these topics.

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