Ready, set, revitalize

Bjoertvedt, Creative Commons

They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. That’s true, but the success of that journey also depends upon packing a bag with snacks, supplies, and anti-chaffing creams.

So it goes for diversifying the economy and winning the future of the Mesabi Iron Range. Success won’t appear all at once. It takes preparation.

Two weeks ago I wrote about ideas that might help diversify and sustain a new Iron Range economy. One of them related to the reimagining of downtown spaces in Range towns. Shortly after that column ran, an Iron Range community got good news related to this goal.

On Oct. 14, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development announced several grants for a program to revitalize downtown business districts. The Virginia Community Foundation received almost $1.8 million for three major projects, matched by many more private and public dollars.

This achievement was the result of years of work by the foundation’s Revive Virginia initiative, the City of Virginia, and private business owners. Most importantly, these efforts provide a blueprint for other Iron Range towns to use as they regenerate older business districts.

Receiving a $1.8 million state grant creates many possibilities, but getting that money wasn’t easy. Last week, I spoke with Betsy Olivanti and Shawn Herhusky from the Revive Virginia initiative.

“If you want to revitalize your town you’re going to have to go after things that seem hard,” said Olivanti.

For the Revive Virginia group, that means addressing things like downtown buildings in need of repair and creating opportunity for small businesses.

Revive Virginia began with surveys of existing business owners six years ago. They followed up with another survey last year. This helped them understand the needs of local business leaders.

They also did some experimentation. Using grants from the City of Virginia and Iron Range Resources, the group purchased a low cost building in need of repairs. They sought to find out what it cost to restore properties like these.

After paying $30,000 for 118 Chestnut Street, the group spent $130,000 to fix the building. That ratio of purchase price to restoration costs serves as a guide for others who might want to do the same thing.

That ratio also shows why “profit-first” developers are hesitant to work with old buildings. And yet restoring buildings like these creates reliable, reusable spaces for a wide variety of new businesses. Remote working is becoming an enormous part of the economy. Buildings like these could be part of a new decentralized creative economy.

Such spending would certainly yield more than the endless expansion of roads, infrastructure, and electricity to city edges, something our towns have spent hundreds of millions doing for the last three decades. After all, we already have to spend money maintaining infrastructure downtown; why not actually use it?

In essence, there’s a reason that normal market forces won’t fix the problem all on their own. People who care about the community must invest time and money. Fortunately, projects like Revive Virginia have attracted just such people.

“There are lots of those kinds of people who just won’t take this lying down,” said Olivanti. “[They say] we want more for our home, our community, our kids and so we create it ourselves.”

The DEED downtown revitalization grant that Virginia received will help fund three private projects. The first is the reconstruction of the Rocks the Jewelers building lost to fire last year. Another project would demolish an older building on Chestnut Street in order to create two smaller buildings with an attractive courtyard between them. The third project will be financial support for the new Marriot TownePlace Suites hotel next to the Iron Trail Motors Event Center.

The City of Virginia recently approved $4.4 million in tax increment financing for the same project. Olivanti said local tourism research showed a serious need for hotel rooms given the new arena’s ability to attract bigger events.

Revive Virginia demonstrates an important point regarding the regrowth of Iron Range cities. Yes, there is a need for the expertise in economic development, but there is arguably a greater need for enthusiasm and ideas from community leaders and small business owners.

“Everybody thinks there’s something special to people doing this work, but really it’s just people who learned as they went,” said Herhusky.

In other words, the journey of a thousand miles begins with getting involved. Money and front page success comes after small, inexpensive things start happening.

If you’re interested in the work of Revive Virginia, check out their website at If you live elsewhere, Olivanti and Herhusky recommend contacting your local chamber or city offices if you’d like to join or launch efforts in your town. You don’t have to start from scratch; often existing groups are seeking people to lead new efforts.

For those efforts to work, Herhusky said that preparation is key.

“If other communities want to go after these opportunities you’ve got to do the groundwork first,” said Herhusky.

But that’s all it is. Work. Not magic. And certainly not complaining. While there are many who pine for how things used to be, it takes just a few leaders to make a future that’s even better.

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. 24, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



  1. The only time I have ever spent in Virginia was for a Humanites workshop covering mining end of steel making. I was impressed with a lot that was happening there in terms of revitalization. That was in 2004. Much of on the redoing had to do with rebuilding local historical landmarks like the the Synagogue and Keleva Hall But nevertheless it was happening. Much of what the tour experienced I had never heard about growing up in Hibbing. I wonder how much of the history in these towns is even know about by the people who live there these days. Key piece in your words for me is this …. “In essence, there’s a reason that normal market forces won’t fix the problem all on their own. People who care about the community must invest time and money. Fortunately, projects like Revive Virginia have attracted just such people. “
    I wonder too if in sort a wierdly inverse way the magnificent High School in Hibbing is a distraction from so much more of that cities history which could lead to a rebirth as seems to be happening in Virginia.

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