Free ideas for Iron Range future

This grand old building is the Hibbing Public Utilities power plant. It sits between the historic Howard Street business district and the sprawling campus of Bennett Park. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

People around local politics often like to “admire problems.” In short, people like to look at problems, complain about them, even lose sleep over them, but then take few steps to actually solve those issues.

Sometimes I’m reminded that talking about economic diversification for the Iron Range or the broad concept of “change” isn’t enough. So today I’m giving out three free ideas. They’re free! Take them, use them, or throw them away.

Here’s the first one.

The public utilities plants at Hibbing and Virginia continue to vex local leaders. Plagued by old infrastructure and a changing energy marketplace, they now generate many complaints — some fair, some not. When these facilities were each built about 100 years ago they represented forward-thinking energy policy. They produced low cost electricity, yes, but also delivered a remarkable steam heating network.

During the early years of this system the most dire problem for residents of these Range towns was surviving the winter. Central heating allowed people to do so easily for a small fraction of the cost. But now the centralized heating components are breaking down and it’s not clear that cities and local taxpayers are willing to repair them permanently.

So, what if we don’t? What if Hibbing and Virginia get out of the baseload power generation business and refocus its public utilities funding and efforts elsewhere? The towns could get involved in small scale renewable energy projects, like solar roofs, small solar farms, geothermal and wind energy production. Efforts could also be dedicated toward conservation of energy — addressing heat and electricity waste in older buildings and systems. Conservation could prove just as useful as trying to make new electricity. These efforts could be used to attract new residents and to compete for a wide range of coming state and federal grants.

Secondly, and perhaps this is the real advantage, both Hibbing and Virginia’s power plants are sitting on prime downtown real estate that could then be used to reimagine these communities from the inside out. New housing near a lake (Virginia) or park (Hibbing) could fill an important need. Furthermore, the business development opportunities in the densest part of these towns represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not seen since the towns were first built.

Cities could take the lead. Private developers and walkable public streets could paint a new canvas for the region. Meantime, companies like Minnesota Power could gain new customers and valuable opportunities to meet its clean energy commitments.

Here’s another problem. I hear a lot of people talking about the “crumbling” or even “dangerous” downtowns of Iron Range cities. These comments generally stem from the fact that A) buildings are all about the same age, roughly 100 years old; B) owners can’t or won’t spend money to renovate, so the buildings accumulate internal and external wear; and C) such property often ends up vacant, and eventually hard to sell at all.

There are many to blame, and that tends to be what you hear people talking about. It’s the absentee landlords or the poor people who trash the rental properties. Thieves and meth heads take their cut as well. Maybe all that is part of the story, but the real question is why we don’t solve it collectively.

The Range has done a number of successful small scale programs to beautify downtown storefronts, both in towns and through Iron Range Resources. Perhaps there’s a way to scale this up as a private/public partnership.

For instance, as I’ve written before, we can start marketing the relatively lower cost brick buildings in Range downtowns — often underused or unused — to companies looking to locate offices around the continent. Tech firms desperately need to attract new workers, and often can’t compete with the high salaries offered by the biggest firms. So, places like northern Minnesota offer A) affordable real estate, B) attractive surroundings, and C) the ability to remake corners or even whole blocks into new concepts.

Integrated housing and workspaces? Mixed use retail and housing? A giant code farm at the foot of the Mesabi Trail or Redhead Mountain Bike complex? All possible, so long as we don’t wait ten years for the buildings to all burn down or succumb to water damage or pigeon riots. Yes, local governments might again play a leadership role; they’ll certainly need to address zoning challenges. But here too an enterprising businessperson might want to corner the next wave of economic action: Rust Belt Regeneration. No place is better suited for this than our towns right here. Go to them with a well-organized plan instead of a list of the way we’ve always done things in the past.

The third idea relates to child care. Did you know that Hibbing had a municipal child care center during and after World War I? When both men and women needed to work it was understood that society played a role in caring for young children.

Now, there’s a lot of things about that old model that won’t work in today’s environment. But affordable, available child care is literally the difference maker for young families thriving in a community. Current options are often too expensive for parents and pay too little to the workers who actually provide the care. It’s clear that the market alone won’t solve the problem; and here perhaps the Range could make a bold, well-publicized gambit to effect change.

Of course, these ideas cost money. But these towns cost money when they were first built, too. Nostalgia sometimes clouds the fact that the extraordinary development of these Iron Range towns came from a combination of public spending, private investment, and audacity. No single political theory can claim full ownership of this history.

Money exists, both inside the region and outside the region, for ideas like these. But it’s not enough to dangle a little bit of money like some kind of bait. Entrepreneurs aren’t like fish. Developing the right projects requires leadership. Perhaps you are a leader?

Don’t like these ideas? Well, they’re free. No refunds available. But then ask yourself if it’s the ideas or change that you don’t like. If it’s change, well, the bad news is that change is coming anyway. The good news is that change doesn’t have to be all bad.

Maybe you’ve got a better idea? Run for city council. Gather some friends and invest in something with your time, money, or both. That’s how this works.

Aaron J. Brown

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, Oct. 10, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.




  1. Joe musich says

    Go all the way. Let Hibbing invest in wind and solar on it’s own to power the entire city. Has anyone looked into the cost ? Make it big enough to attract a create space type print to demand facility, an up coming Photoshop type subsidiary, and a recording label company heavily digital orientated along the band camp lines, and a podcast specializing company that would take an idea from beginning to end for users. Share the expenses between the city and the focused business that would make contractual commitments covering natural growth periods. Focused the community college curriculum on business that would come to the range.

  2. Well done Aaron. You are right on when you talk about getting involved and I encourage others to do the same.
    I invest my time and money in an industry that is a constant in our country, entertainment! If we built sound stages in our large under utilized public buildings, let’s say one or two at the fair grounds, rented them out for less than other markets, we would draw productions on a regular basis, film and TV. Let’s offer more, like the area on the north side of MN Discovery Center as the back lot for outdoor shoots. These productions will rent hotel rooms and homes, will pay caterers and restaurants for meals, will buy many things from fleet supplies and hardware stores, will higher local people for the production trades, and will provide opportunities for new small business that support this industry.
    Look at Georgia, they brought in $4 billion to their local economies so far this year, even with covid! I’ve invested in films and I sit on the Upper Midwest Film Office board while actively engaging in efforts to build a new creative economy. I want our local economy to thrive like it did before the 80s and I am doing something that I think will lead to that!

  3. Good ideas. I like that you are open minded about new things, new uses. Keep this discussion going. It is sad to see some decent old buildings crumble. Will the “nicer” newer buildings be as good in the long run? A new store near my house had a leaking roof already in the first year the manager told me.
    Re childcare: yes, expensive to set up, needing space, equipment, and TEACHERS! I would think that our schools would have excess space since so many of the districts have fewer students than 20 years ago.

  4. PS. There is a group currently working to try to collectively get solar installations on the Range. The idea is that if there are several installations going in a general area within a short period of time, there is room to bargain on the installation costs.

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