Arrowhead urges entrepreneurship as big mining renews its lure

Some 200 residents of the Iron Range, Duluth and the North Shore chewed over their economic challenges for an hour and a half last night. In many ways, they covered the familiar ground of mining, tourism, education and diversification in a spirited conversation they could have had 10 or 20 years ago.

But you could sense urgency in the room, a theme picked up by community college teacher and Iron Range blogger Aaron Brown, who was there and wrote about it this morning. It was an urgency pointing increasingly toward self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship.

“Our region was settled by adventurers, not really entrepreneurs,” Mary Mathews, president of the Northeast Entrepreneur Fund, told the crowd, which gathered for a forum sponsored by MPR News and Northland’s NewCenter in Duluth. “People, after those businesses were started, they left. We became a company town.

“To some extent we’re still a company town, but there are nuggets of entrepreneurial spirit,” Mathews said.

Her non-profit organization has helped 1,300 businesses get started or grow over the past 22 years, she said.

Obstacles are the lack of a clear career ladder for enterprising young people and a dearth of investment capital, she said.

Drew Digby, a labor analyst for the state Department of Employment and Economic Development , agreed, noting that it’s a spirit that doesn’t seem to come naturally in northeastern Minnesota. In the past, “people would come and assume a big company would give them a job. That sense of creating your own opportunity is really hard.”

Some in the room had it.

There was a fifth-generation Duluthian who moved away and came back and is selling solar energy collection equipment. An artist talked about the boon the Internet has been to keeping his business going for 15 years.

Matt Tyler said he’s put together a forestry consulting business and his girlfriend runs an organic farm in Finland, Minn. He harvests wild rice to supplement his living.

At the same time, hovering over the whole evening was the big PolyMet proposal to start mining copper and nickel near Eveleth. For some, it’s a great promise that holds the possibility of firing

a struggling economy for decades to come. For others, it’s a repeat of relying on big outsiders that will prove harmful in the end and threaten to dampen fledgling entrepreneurial spirit.

So it’s fascinating to watch communities struggle with the notion of helping entrepreneurs as the path to a different future, at the same time a big outside force is holding up the promise of wealth “the old-fashioned way.” To be fair, PolyMet’s Brad Moore told people the mining industry has learned lessons and simply has to do better than it has in the past in terms of protecting the environment and staying in the community long-term.

What was clearer by the end of the evening was how three Arrowheads are trying to find their way — the Iron Range, Duluth and the North Shore. A near-depression in one place is a good time in another. A savior in one place is sometimes seen as a destroyer in another.

Can a move to “relocalize food,” for example, or build a narrative involving artists compete for mindshare and people’s energy and enthusiasm with the promise of hundreds of mining jobs? The conversation at the Duluth Radisson was a useful look at a community asking itself questions like these that will define their future.

To get a sense of the evening, read the live blog hosted by MPR News’ Michael Caputo, complete with lots of Twitter contributions from those attending.

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