Rich town, poor town

PHOTO: Till Westermayer, Flickr CC-BY-SA

A century ago, Iron Range communities like Hibbing, Virginia and Eveleth drew the ire of conservative business and political minds for their lavish spending on public works and education. Hibbing even boasted the nickname “the Richest Village on Earth” for its ability to levy enormous tax revenues off of the unfathomable wealth of nearby iron mines.

Pioneer political leaders like Hibbing’s Vic Power, Virginia’s Mike Boylan and Eveleth’s Victor Essling joined forces to reclaim the wealth leaving their towns on U.S. Steel’s trains. They built world class communities, even as the Twin Cities press labeled them pirates. Ultimately, these men’s grip on power slipped before they shuffled off this mortal coil. The likes of their sort would not be seen again, mostly because company-friendly lawmakers prohibited their methods and rendered mining taxation stable and small by comparison.

So it is no surprise that today Iron Range towns depend not only on their limited share of mining taxation, but also on the state’s Local Government Aid program. These places were built for greatness, but left behind by a spinning century of change. Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns warns that we’re approaching the fiscal “endgame” for small towns like ours.

This came to mind as I read a recent analysis by a nonprofit journalism organization called Center Square, part of the conservative-leaning Franklin News Foundation. On Jan. 7, author Samuel Stebbins identified the Mesabi Range town of Aurora as the “poorest town in Minnesota.”

The analysis considers poverty rates, mean income, and comparison to state averages. It’s this last one — mean income ($32,207) compared to the state average ($77,706) — that dinged Aurora. Unfortunately, this gap could just as easily apply to the rest of the Range.

This is the part where I could say, “Ah, but what truly makes a town rich? Is it money or the spirit of community that bolsters us during hard times.” But that misses the point.

It’s possible to be proud of our Iron Range communities while still learning from the data that informs journalistic clickbait like this. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we can plainly see the evidence with our own eyes. The same general condition faces not just Aurora, but all the cities of the Iron Range.

In no particular order, here are some problems that have affected Range towns.

Original infrastructure is all the same age, about 100 years old. This means that, since the downturn of the 1980s, most towns have patched together repair solutions. Some have hit on major renovations, but a sleeping giant of expensive work remains buried beneath the ground.

Since the 1980s, Range towns — like many American municipalities — invested heavily in development along the edges of town and major highways, creating another batch of aging infrastructure farther from city centers. Many of these developments are not producing tax revenue the way they once did, exacerbating the problem.

As families shrunk, demographics shifted. Additionally, more young people left, at least during child-rearing years. This created a hole in population distribution that began to hit Iron Range school enrollment during the 1990s and early 2000s. Population later stabilized, but mostly through people moving into rural areas outside Range towns, where svelte township governments have less infrastructure to worry about. Hey, no judgement, I’m one of them.

As more middle class and wealthy people fled to the townships, city housing stock deteriorated for lack of investment. The low income and retired people became a larger share of town populations. This essentially caps tax revenue and inhibits new income because towns can’t afford more than they’re already doing. In fact, they’ve needed to make budget cuts amid rising legacy costs and inflation.

I don’t mean to dwell on these problems, but they explain why our towns have struggled and why people here are tired and frustrated with the status quo. We must do better.

One observation from Center Square’s list of “poorest towns” across the U.S. is the fact that most of them are rural. The rural-urban divide captures a lot of political imaginations these days, as it becomes part of the great partisan sorting that defines this era of American history. A sort of mutual resentment is building between more conservative-minded rural areas and liberal-minded urban areas. But the partisan divide itself is not the real story. We ought to consider the actual issues underneath the surface of this growing animosity.

Rural America needs a “policy renaissance,” according to a New York Times commentary by Tony Pipa of the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution. A sea of federal and state programs fail to coalesce into a rural strategy, he writes.

“Very few [towns] can get the type and level of resources necessary to reinvent their economy or unleash the full potential of their human, intellectual and natural capacity as they face rapid change,” said Pipa.

That’s where the Iron Range is different, and why our story could be more hopeful than others. Unlike an isolated small town on the prairie, an Iron Range town is part of a network of cities that can work together (even if they only occasionally do). The Iron Range Resources agency earned criticism for past missteps, but remains a unique resource for attracting investment to the region. Private funds like the Blandin and Northland foundations provide other opportunities.

Furthermore, our problems — properly addressed — could become solutions. Available real estate and proximity to “quality of life” amenities like nature, parks, schools and higher education remain tremendous marketing opportunities for Range cities. Remote work is a growing reality, and that means remote entrepreneurship represents a new frontier.

This hasn’t been properly attempted yet, mostly because we’ve been working through difficult cultural and economic change brought by mining company consolidation and automation. We may wish things could go back “the way they were.” But when we realize that “the way they could be” might be even better, well, watch out. We can compete with any place in the world.

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 Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Micheál McEvoy says

    Not only are new developments not producing revenue as expected, the tax-break/tax-free incentives that municipal governments use to lure in big-bix stores and manufacturing lock in that non-revenue for years, if not decades.

  2. Interesting read, thank you.

  3. Ann Essling says

    Appreciate your mention of my great uncle Vic Essling. I’m very proud of my family’s role in Eveleth history and wish a bright future for the town that gave me a wonderful childhood.

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