Rethinking small town goals on the Iron Range

Chisholm, Minnesota (PHOTO: Strong Towns)

Time to time, someone tells me that their Iron Range town is boring. Nothing much happens here. Everything is old.

But, historically speaking, the towns of northern Minnesota’s Mesabi, Vermilion and Cuyuna ranges are young. Only about a century has passed since their creation. They were borne of cultural chaos and political intrigue that still shape our lives today.

Most Range communities built infrastructure in the 1910s and early ‘20s when the iron mining tax system allowed for extraordinary spending. The profit-minded mining companies tried to stop the spending at the local level. When that proved unsuccessful, they lobbied to change the tax laws. That did the trick, but not before Range towns built themselves elaborate streets, parks, schools and public utility plants.

The towns of that time were mostly compact, centered in a world where people walked to work and school.

In the subsequent century, Range towns endured a Depression, another World War, and a change-over to taconite mining technology. The beautiful streets, schools and parks remained, but at significant expense. Then, as development trends changed in the 1960s and ‘70s, Range towns expanded infrastructure to city limits to serve the state highways that bypassed the old downtowns.

The expansion or “sprawl” development pattern was deployed with mostly good intentions, but has proven an expensive, unsuccessful strategy in the long run. I’m certainly not the first to make this observation. My friend Chuck Marohn has been saying this for a long time.

Marohn runs Strong Towns, a nonprofit organization that helps local governments create more resilient and sustainable strategies in an era of ballooning local deficits and economic change. Strong Towns supports local governments in a nonpartisan way. I know liberals and conservatives alike who see wisdom in the Strong Towns approach. Ultimately, it comes down to us working together on local solutions.

This month, Strong Towns will begin a Community Action Lab in the Iron Range town of Chisholm. Anyone who’s been following local activity in Chisholm knows that its citizens have been trying to build community in recent years. Volunteers advanced live music and arts projects, the town built a pocket park in a vacant downtown lot, and seasonal activities provided fun for families. Now organizers aim to expand this approach to the whole town.

The idea behind the Community Action Lab is to help Chisholm identify its problems and potential solutions. Over a two-year period, local officials, active citizens and other stakeholders will participate in training and planning sessions. Eventually, ideas will make their way to the public square where more people can get involved.

The lab is led by the town, not the Strong Towns organization. Marohn and others are there to help, and to connect the town with research and resources. The work is being underwritten by a grant from the Blandin Foundation.

It’s reasonable to skeptical of planning activities like this. I’ve been to many community planning sessions where people talk big with little follow-through. It can also be intimidating to speak up in the presence of so many opinionated people. But I’ve been following the Strong Towns organization for many years. They’re not selling expensive development projects we can’t afford. Rather, they’re sharing ideas that will save us money long term. That alone makes them different.

The first Strong Towns Communication Action Lab event will be held 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 2* at the Chisholm Senior Citizens Center at 319 Lake Street.

“In this presentation, we show how active citizens, local officials and design professionals can change the negative trajectory in their towns and help them to become more resilient — no matter what challenges lie ahead,” reads the invitation.

If you think that our Range towns could use a boost, that nothing changes here, maybe it’s time to do something about that.

* The Strong Towns event in Chisholm originally scheduled for April 4 was rescheduled to Tuesday, May 2.

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, April 1, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.

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