Northern Minnesota has what you need

Greetings from Northern Minnesota
IMAGE: 1938 postcard, Steve Shook collection, Flickr CC
Aaron J. Brown

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

What do you need to live?

You need air, of course. Food and water. Shelter. 

Once you have these you may think about the other things you need. You need friendship, family and love. You need a sense of purpose, to believe that your efforts matter. And finally, once you have these things, you might solve the short riddle that’s so hard to answer: “Who Am I?”

You may recognize here Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from his 1943 article in the journal Psychological Review, “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Maslow’s model of human needs being prioritized in a pyramid shape became standard material in college psychology and sociology classes. Though, to be honest, it’s the kind of stuff that many students forget after they turn in the final exam. 

Interestingly, Maslow developed his ideas after conducting interviews with the indigenous Blackfeet Nation in Montana. The Blackfeet have long held a similar concept to understand human needs, only theirs goes farther. Maslow’s hierarchy concludes with “self-actualization,” but Blackfeet teachings describe “community-actualization” as a step above self. And the top of their “tipi” is labeled “cultural perpetuity.” 

Thus, striving to meet needs is empty unless it builds and sustains a community and a meaningful culture.

Last week I wrote about northern Minnesota’s need to attract people as an antidote for its lost political clout and economic stagnation. Today I’ll quickly review some feasible strategies to make it happen.

High speed internet

COVID-19 caused havoc across the world, but it has proven that home-based work is not only possible, but at times preferable. Collaboration and productivity can happen anywhere with reliable internet connectivity. This can also reduce commuting, producing more time and less fossil fuel usage for teleworkers.

So why do frequent internet outages and connection problems continue to plague Iron Range towns? Talk to online students and home workers and they’ll tell you that the situation is often maddening. Further, some rural areas near Range cities still don’t have wired high-speed internet options. 

Solving these problems might be expensive, but money isn’t the most vexing part of the challenge. An arcane regulatory structure that limits competition while protecting sub-par service is just as much to blame. This region needs to apply as much pressure to fix this as we’ve seen exerted for mining and pipeline permits. The results will be greater.

Attracting teleworkers

But high speed internet is improving, and communities with good service have a remarkable advantage. Since my family received high speed fiber access in rural Itasca County, more and more people in our area have made use of opportunities to telework. That’s a selling point that could be magnified.

One example of this comes from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa is a full-sized city of about 400,000 people, not a series of interconnected small towns in northern Minnesota like us. Nevertheless, Tulsa shares some of the same challenges as we do; geographic remoteness, and a reputation for resistance to change. Their solution is a program called Tulsa Remote ( 

The program is two-fold. First, it markets the assets of the city — technology, public amenities, and community. Second, it literally pays people who can work anywhere to live in Tulsa. Essentially, they bring people who already have jobs. The program pays for itself by growing the tax base and population. Long term benefits include the entrepreneurial outcomes of the people who come. Perhaps a software engineer starts a new company. Or their spouse starts an entirely unrelated business. 

To do this, Tulsa sells what it has going for it, and attempts to turn weaknesses into strengths.

For instance, there are few American cities with a worse history regarding race relations than Tusla. In 1921, white Tulsa residents attacked and bombed one of the most prosperous Black communities in the nation. Today, the city uses this dark episode as a specific example of opportunity to address racism, and to restore what was lost. 

Marketing Our Assets

To a large degree, America is the story of marketing. The story we tell about ourselves determines our future. The same is true for our small towns and rural communities in northern Minnesota. We must simply decide to start telling a story of sustainable progress rather than one of inevitable decline and resistance to change.

That’s why it’s exciting to see some local communities catching up to this reality. In Itasca County, the Thrive Up North campaign ( is a multi-fasciated strategy to bring people and economic activity to a county that has historically struggled with above-average poverty and economic volatility.

The Thrive Up North message is simple. This is a great place to live with things to do and everything you need to work. You might have seen the television ads talking to families who make their life in the Grand Rapids area. 

Thrive Up North includes several partners working toward the goal of attracting people. They all have their reasons. Tourism and economic development agencies see the benefit, of course, but so does the local hospital which — like all rural hospitals — struggles to recruit talented doctors from other places. The high speed internet provider also stands to benefit from the successful recruitment of workers who bring the jobs with them. When new people “thrive,” so do existing residents.

Talk up, not down

When it comes to attracting people to northern Minnesota, our local tendency — a self-defeating one at that — is to fixate what we don’t have. We don’t have enough jobs, for instance, or the right kind of amenities. We know people who are racist or xenophobic, and worry what they might say or do. 

But we’re better served emphasizing our strengths, which are many. Our cost of living is low enough that just selling a house in an expensive market is enough to purchase a stable place in our local economy. Affordable real estate allows investment in new businesses that would be cost-prohibitive elsewhere. More here welcome diversity. Maybe most importantly we offer attractive recreation, quality of life, and the very real opportunity to find peace in nature. 

We can build supportive communities for both new and current residents of northern Minnesota. Closed-minded naysayers will talk, but so will a new generation ready for change. 

Who will talk louder? That’s up to us. 

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. Fred Schumacher says

    What northern Minnesota needs is refugee immigrants. They’re survivors, go getters who figured out how to make it under extreme duress. Who better to create something out of nothing? But at the St. Louis County Board meeting in February in Duluth, it was Iron Rangers who were vociferously opposed to refugee resettlement in this region. In spite of themselves only being a few generations removed from the immigrant experience, their shortsightedness based on racial animosity and fear of increased taxes dominated their mindset. They couldn’t see beyond the ends of their noses. They were terrified of Syrians and Somalis moving into their communities. Syrians are the most highly educated Arabic population, and Somalis are the most motivated and quickest to become citizens of any immigrant group ever to come to the U.S. These are people with skills and drive. We should jump for joy to have them come.

  2. Fred Schumacher says

    Rural broadband is as essential as rural electrification was 90 years ago. Our internet service can barely manage one meg per second. This past spring, fiber optic cable was run along the county road south of us. There’s a DSLAM only 5,000 feet from our house, but Frontier has not hooked us up to it, even though all the wiring is finished. So we still get service by copper through ancient switches from four miles away. A Frontier tech tested our circuit remotely and said we should be good for 25 megs minimum. The problem lies with Frontier, which is a failing company.

    • Yes, and the politics aren’t that different either. In the 30s, utilities fought federal rural electrification programs. They didn’t want to provide the service–not seeing it as profitable–but neither did they want coops to provide it. If Minnesota legislators and governors had the courage and integrity to blow off the telecom lobbyists … things could change for the better quickly enough.

  3. Garrett Ebling says

    I’m one of these people thanks to…COVID? My job in Woodbury became remote overnight. Prior to the pandemic I had my cabin near Biwabik on the market. Now it is becoming my permanent home. I love the recreational opportunities, the scenery and the small town feel (entering middle aged probably plays a role in that). I am invested here and I feel Biwabik has a ton of potential if the mindset could shift just a bit. We have jewels with a chain of lakes and Giants Ridge. Bring in an outfitter, a cafe, some kitschy shops and galleries. Market the hell out of all the things you can already do here: bike, snowmobile, snowshoe, ski, ATV, hunt, fish, canoe, boating, golf, disc golf, it goes on and on…..

  4. Craig Hanson says

    High speed internet is quickly going to roll out these next few years across Northern US and Southern Canada. These last few efforts by terrestrial players to lay fiber were just to capture their last wave of clients prior to the multiple near earth orbit providers coming online to have to compete against. Options will be good for both service level and cost!

    Starlink (Elon Musk) is accepting beta clients right now. They have a waiting list to sign up for. $500 in equipment and $99/month for the early adopters.

    Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos) is not as far in testing, but is going to be another player in the low latency satellite internet market.

    These are not the same performance as rural households have come to live with from dish network type geosynchronous satellite providers. The old version of satellite internet is much higher up which creates a high latency internet experience that barely supports full duplex voice and lags waiting to start your streaming content on the TV. Once it buffers, it can have high bandwidth, but your internet experience is dominated by the latency factor, not just the bandwidth you are paying for.

    • Thanks for the information, Craig. How do the new satellite services compare with fiber? What’s their performance like during weather events compared to the other satellite services? Obviously eliminating the need for lines is a good way to knock the cost down. I know some places like Delta Airlines still don’t want satellite service for teleworkers if it has any risk of being knocked out. But if the new stuff performs better, it might work.

      PS: Don’t feel you have to spend too much time on answering. I should be able to google this. 🙂

  5. In trying to position the Range and Northeastern MN for possible competition for workers and businesses who have a choice as to where they locate due to being able to work remotely, the quality of broadband service is obviously important.

    But other things are important too.

    Among the selling points we have, the quality of the environment and the associated availability of recreation is critical. I worked for many years in a high-tech field, and spent a lot of time recruiting people to live and work in the Northland. The biggest predictor of our success in recruiting a candidate was ties to the area on the part of either the target or the target’s spouse. But the second most important was the interest of the recruit in outdoor activities available here. Those activities included everything from hunting, fishing, and snowmobiling to cross-country skiing, mountain biking, canoeing, hiking and camping, sailing, and, in one case, sled-dog racing. Preservation of quality of the environment is critical for that. A friend of mine who is a PhD in economics constantly complains that the economic analysis and projections surrounding various proposals in our area do not pay enough attention to the high value of the environment. Loss of environmental quality, including water and air pollution, noise, dust, and scenic values, can be much more costly than initial projections think. Our environment has tremendous real economic value.

    The cost of real estate, in particular real estate with scenic and recreational value, is extremely low in the Northland compared with national markets. Over and over, recruits and their spouses marveled at the value they could get for their real estate dollar in Northeastern MN. There are some issues with availability of inventory at some times, including right now, but even if people need to build costs are much lower than in most major metro areas and orders of magnitude below major “wish list” areas. We always tried to emphasize this, and to include housing tours in any recruiting visits as well as plug potential recruits into listings on line..

    But the most critical concern for many people is the quality of education for their kids. The Northland has many advantages in that area, especially dealing with concerns about school safety and potential exposure to crime, but years of neglect of our schools have taken their toll. The neglect due to reluctance to commit money and a failure to understand the real way in which current costs compare to costs in “the good old days,” especially factoring the cost of special education which continues to be severely underfunded by the federal government since Reagan chose to refuse to fund the federal mandates implemented in the early 1980’s, makes it nearly impossible to get the kind of resources our schools need to bring themselves up to the level of schools elsewhere in both educational performance and the availability of important check-list items like co-curricular programs, lab and computer resources, and general quality of physical plants. We may not need a waterfall in the lobby like Eden Prairie has, but too often our schools suffer from deferred upkeep and maintenance and from overdue updating of facilities that makes us suffer in comparison to other places. It is extremely unfortunate that this has become a partisan issue in recent years, with one party tending to see education spending as benefitting teacher’s unions and minorities rather than as an important factor in our overall economic performance, and in Northeastern MN the aging of our population has led to unfortunate “I’ve got mine” reactions by many people when the question of school funding comes up.

    So yes, by all means let’s get much more wide availability of quality internet connectivity. But let’s pay more attention to the quality of our schools and to protecting our environment. These are not frills. They are central to growth and prosperity, and to avoiding the West Virginia trap.

  6. Fred Schumacher says

    About 20 years ago, the Orr School had a visit exchange going with Apple Valley schools. The teachers were so excited to be up north they said they had nothing in Apple Valley to compete with it and were worried about how they would entertain Orr teachers visiting Apple Valley. Access to nature and its recreational possibilities is a powerful asset to draw people to the Arrowhead, which is why sulfide mining can turn a short term gain into a massive long term disaster. Iron mining is child’s play compared to hard rock mining.

  7. I would welcome immigrants from other cultures settling here and opening restaurants featuring their native cuisines when our covid nightmare is over which would improve our economy. I haven’t missed going to eat out in restaurants since March because the majority of restaurants’ menus are the same old burger, sandwich, pizza “choices”.

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