Why livability is key to Northern Minnesota strategy


The Iron Range, all of Northern Minnesota, and most of rural America share many problems, while maintaining some unique ones. Nevertheless, we could all make good use of one potential solution: We need people.

Our small towns and rural institutions were built for a certain number of people. Not a ton of people, but a certain amount. Now we can’t keep our towns and institutions going because we have far fewer people to fill them. And the people we have, darn them, aren’t behaving quite the same way as the folks did years ago.

Many of us are older now. We need health care more than jobs, and sit on property wealth that isn’t going anywhere. The youngest of us aren’t as likely to join a civic group or church. We’re willing to drive long distances and use technology for fun and collaboration with others.

Jobs would help. Money. Saloons with pretty girls leaning out the second story windows. (That’s how a lot of these towns started). But in reality, what these places need is people.

We’ve got some jobs right now that no one seems able to fill. New people take jobs we can’t fill because our workforce is too old and too diminished, or too wealthy or picky to work those particular jobs. Best case, people bring new ideas and new businesses, which produce more jobs and, yes, more money. Baseline, new people fill houses, schools and critical lower wage jobs. That is also good.

As for the saloons, well, they call them brewpubs now. And we’ve already got some of those!

This need for people is finally showing up in the region’s marketing, and not a moment too soon.

Visit Grand Rapids recently launched a new campaign, “Live Like a Local.” It’s aimed at the kind of people who visit Northern Minnesota with the goal of enticing them to visit more often or, best case, move here entirely.

Among several videos highlighting activities, culture and more, this one is aimed at young families. Tasha Connelly, who happens to serve on the Grand Rapids City Council, talks about her experience moving back to her hometown:

The Iron Range Tourism Bureau, which covers Mesabi Range towns from Hibbing to Aurora, just launched its own series of videos as well.

In this video, farmer Janna Goerdt talks about why she lives and raises crops and livestock on the Iron Range.

DISCLOSURE: Iron Range Tourism is an advertiser on my site.

The “why” becomes the most important part of the story. Most anyone who lives here, no matter their profession, thrives on some kind of tie to nature. The sense of place, of belonging, provided by living in rural areas becomes the key argument. That’s what people want. In a sea of people hungry for authenticity, for human connection, for a balance of activity and peace, rural places offer a bold new frontier.

This is the growth opportunity. In the modern economy, jobs follow people more than most of us realize. This doesn’t preclude us from maintaining jobs in mining, wood products or agriculture. But even under the rosiest projections the total number of jobs (people) in those fields won’t ever grow much due to automation. That means that relying on those jobs alone won’t work.

But can I imagine people wanting to move to Northern Minnesota to enjoy a good life? Entrepreneurs. Immigrants. Young opportunists. Why yes. We’ve run this simulation before and it does work. A little messy maybe, but it buffs out in the end.


  1. Not to mention being in one giant Lake Wobegon. At least, that’s what my friends say when I tell Range stories.

  2. Aaron, again you hit the nail on the head. The amenities based economy is sustaining as long as the environment stays clean. Up Ely way we have tried to make this point now since copper became a serious threat to our watershed. We arrived in the wave of the 70’s seeking a life away from the rat race and today we see that happening again among young people and retirees. Our leaders seem to have copper on the brain so the wave may just have to happen without them on board. Organic, sustainable, lifestyle, amenities, ecosystem are all terms of endearment for a future up north.

  3. There”s an interesting article in today’s(12/16/18) New York Times that describes how the rural population across the country is shrinking. One reason why is that the rural areas can’t attract the high tech jobs that are clustering together in the coastal areas of the country. There are some manufacturing jobs, but a lot of them are being increasingly done by robots. Even the experts don’t have any ideas for changing the trend.
    My wife and I are moving back to Ely in a couple of months, but as semi-retirees to take advantage of the lifestyle that Steve describes so well in his comment. We’ll be bringing our personal consulting jobs with us, but that’s it as far as employment.

    • Please stop by and introduce yourselves when you get back to town. You may enjoy our Tuesday Group meeting every Tuesday at Grand Ely Lodge at noon. Cheers and thanks for the comment.

  4. The NY Times article is indeed very pessimistic about the future of places like the Range.

    However, there is a counter-trend occurring now that does seem to offer some promise, especially if we can offer two things: 1.) access to broadband, the faster the better. 2.) Schools that can both produce potential employees capable of working jobs in information tech or bio-tech, as well as offer good education for kids of well-educated parents.

    Increasingly, the Silicon Valley, New York City, and some other ares are pricing themselves out of the market for many potential employees. People earning less than at least mid-six figures, and often more, cannot afford to live in the areas and are often loath to commit to commutes of hours a day to live in reasonably near-by suburbs and ex-urbs.

    In response to this, many of the companies are, of course, locating new jobs in substantial new facilities in other areas — the recent Apple announcement of a new operation with 5000 new jobs in Austin, TX, is an example. However, it is unlikely that the Range, or even Duluth, can compete for these types of operations, for all the reasons cited by the NYT. This might, however, be good news for the Metro area.

    However there is another trend that seems to be gathering steam. That is one of allowing some employees, especially people running technology labs, to make a choice of where they want to locate, basically open to anywhere in the US. Often the operations employ from five to ten people and perform various research and development jobs for larger companies. My nephew, who has a PhD in genetic engineering, is being considered for this type of deal, negotiating to start a lab that would employ seven other people, currently working in his lab at a start-up company that is folding, in a site of his own choosing. The only restriction that has been placed on him in making the choice is that they need to have access to high-speed internet, to facilitate their ongoing interaction with their headquarters in the Bay Area. Neither my nephew, who makes low six figures, nor any of his employees, can consider location in the Bay Area because of costs. The company would win by having lower employment expenses because of not having to cover the very high cost of living and by having low front-end costs for real estate and construction.

    The interesting thing about these deals is that they are allowing some young tech workers to pick their own dream location to work. It is up to us to see that the Range is a potential dream location.

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