The rise of post-commute opportunity in northern Minnesota

Sunrise along St. Louis County Highway 7. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Around 1960 my grandfather Marv Johnson quit the Keewatin police force to work at the Erie taconite plant in Hoyt Lakes. He told me that his take-home salary doubled that day. It was the first time he felt confident he could provide for his growing family.

There were downsides. For one, the job almost killed him when an exploding radiator cap blasted him off the deck of a haul truck. For another, he would spent the rest of his working life commuting from Keewatin to the east Range every day. That meant less sleep, lots of gasoline, and less time with the family.

Even so, he felt the money was worth it. After the accident he couldn’t physically operate the big trucks anymore. He retrained as an electrician and finished his career at Eveleth Taconite, a slightly shorter drive.

A commute like my grandfather’s was once unheard-of. Now most locals routinely commute across the Iron Range for work or know someone who does. My drive is 27 miles one way. It’s not as long as that of many friends or relatives.

We can argue the merits of commuting these distances; it’s obviously not an ideal use of resources. The towns of the Iron Range began as walkable communities connected by rail lines. Now they are housing and commercial centers connected by personal vehicles. But most here would tell you they must drive these distances, or even that they want to, in order to live the life they want.

I’ve worked from home about two days a week most of my career. After COVID-19 hit, my employer learned that a surprising amount of work could be done remotely. Not all of it, of course, but more than we might have thought possible.

Awkwardly at first, most of my co-workers adapted to online meetings and working from home. I bought a lawn mower from a local dealer over the phone. An executive from a Fortune 500 company told me about overseeing a billion dollar loan program while keeping an eye on his ice fishing tip-up. A lot of this was just the realization of what was already possible all along.

Then we crunched the numbers. In April my family purchased no more than a half tank of gas for each of our two vehicles. Even when we added a few more trips in May we spent a tenth our normal gas budget. The savings were tangible.

It was the added time that we felt most of all: at least an extra hour each day. Whether driving into a big city or a small town on the Iron Range, all commuters understand the cost — financially, mentally, and physically — of drive time.

At some point the virus will be mitigated. Workplaces will open again. And, of course, some work can’t be done remotely. But at great cost we’ve all been given a lesson in remote working and learning that we’ll never forget. It’s been explored and thoroughly demystified. Maybe now you can see why remote working is a huge opportunity for Northern Minnesota.

Let’s look at the attractive elements of life in northern Minnesota. Nature, privacy, space, affordable real estate, and just enough amenities to live comfortably. We’ve got a nice place here. Our economy sucks, but that’s because it’s been tied to increasingly automated natural resource extraction. And while most of us don’t want logging and mining jobs to go away, we broadly understand that we’ll never restore the numbers of those jobs to what they once were.

Remote working is a way to sell our best attributes without succumbing to our weaknesses. But building a positive environment for this kind of economy won’t happen naturally. We have some work to do.

For one thing, this means high speed internet and the service infrastructure to support creative work and associated technology. Here, this region has won small victories in recent years. Yet significant work remains unfinished.

A week before last the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools announced an effort to survey needs for high speed internet in rural parts of Itasca and Koochiching counties. They’ve already been doing this in St. Louis County. Coupled with previous efforts by the state Border to Border Broadband initiative, this is the ground level work that leads to expanded broadband access.

If people choose their job and their place as separate considerations that means places can thrive independent of existing economic factors. In fact, using this logic, a good sense of “place” creates economic stability.

A rural place like northern Minnesota would certainly benefit. We tend to think of economic development as the creation of jobs. We should also think of attracting people who already have them.

Society is a people equation, not a jobs equation. People drive the economy. What would turn our economy around? How about, “what would make people want to move to northern Minnesota?” That’s the question.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and is the creator of the Great Northern Radio Show which aired for eight years on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the DATE edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.




  1. Businesses have been learning a lot about the process of working remotely during this crisis.

    The first lesson, and in some ways the most surprising, is that many workers became MORE productive, not less, by working from home. No one knows exactly why, but the numbers from several early studies are unanimous. Researchers suggest that the lack of distractions related to co-workers, the greater convenience of access to snacks, lunches, coffee, and so on, focus more exclusively on work, and a more comfortable work setting may be part of it. Also, workers appear to be more inclined to start earlier and work later to finish projects, rather than being tied to the commute.

    Second, businesses have found that work from home potentially can save money — in some cases lots of money. The workers are providing the facilities that ordinarily have to be purchased or rented at considerable expense. Most are providing most of their own equipment. There are no expenses for amenities like break rooms and lavatories, no costs of maintenance, and so on.

    Workers, of course, can benefit immensely. Reduced costs and time of commuting, reduced costs of daycare, reduced costs of lunches, beverages, and snacks are just part of the benefits. From being able to adjust schedules more to fit lifestyle needs to being able sleep in and then to work in your PJ’s all are benefits.

    Many suspect that there will be large numbers of companies that will use much more work from home even after the crisis passes.

    The implications of this for places like the Range are potentially huge. Low real estate costs, a beautiful environment with abundant recreation resources, and ease of day to day life without the traffic jams, parking hassles, and long trips for almost everything that are routine in larger cities are all attractions. If we can get high-speed internet access throughout the region and if schools become more attractive, the Range could potentially become a magnet for people who are able to work from home — at least those willing to invest in a good winter coat and good winter boots. The writing of Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham about his experiences in Red Lake Falls are an ongoing story about just that — and we all know that Northeastern Minnesota can dance circles around Red Lake Falls while running backward.

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