Can Iron Range build an economy not driven by mining?

Vehicles head south on Highway 53 adjacent to United Taconite’s mine near Virginia, Minn., July  2014.  Derek Montgomery | For MPR News

In the shadow of a pretty good economy in the rest of the state, about 1,000 miners on Minnesota’s Iron Range will lose their jobs next month. Maybe more job losses will follow given the comparatively low prices for iron ore.

The Iron Range has always been the land of boom times and bust, but the country is full of decaying cities where people once waited for a bust to end and the status quo to return.

On Sunday, Ranger Aaron J. Brown, who writes at Minnesota Brown, provided a voice of warning that ought to make people sit up.

“The idea of the Iron Range that so many still cling to is increasingly tied to an irretrievable past,”Brown writes in his weekly article.

Brown, an optimist, has been delivering this message for as long as I can remember. The possibilities for the Iron Range are tremendous, if we stop waiting for the past to be the present.

We live in an economy of independent contractors. Broadband infrastructure is the public utility of our time, connecting the workers of tomorrow to points around the globe. People may choose to live here, even if they work somewhere else.

Our nation lost scores of manufacturing jobs in recent decades, but we see signs of growth in niche manufacturing of quality, customizable products. In this, our proximity to wood products and iron could serve to create opportunities for these industries to locate near the materials they need. Need a special piece of metal? 3-D print it with Mesabi iron.

Duluth is a growing city with a diversifying economy. Where once our mining industry dictated their fate, too, they now thrive without us. As this city grows, our nearby region becomes an alternative and expansion opportunity for entrepreneurs in the Zenith City.

As the West scorches away its water, ours is fresh and abundant. No, we shouldn’t sell it. We should protect it and watch as people realize that living here truly is much better than our winters would suggest.

Finally, for a generation mining industry advocates and environmentalists have performed a battle dance.

We now enter a period in history where green energy and environmental controls are becoming cost-effective and even profitable. We are in a prime location to generate jobs making technology that helps the environment — mitigating damage done by mining in the past and protecting our water, air and land from future damage.

On his Facebook page, Brown got plenty of pushback to his declaration that the Range’s old economy is dead.

“Mining will always have a place on the Range,” a commenter said. “It will and does provide good jobs. It is and will always be part of the future of our state, country, world. Just because grandma’s getting old and can’t do the electric slide anymore doesn’t mean you don’t invite her to the party.”

“Let’s talk about improving the economy of northern Minnesota without slamming its major industry,” suggested another.

But another sounded a compelling theme. Iron Rangers who left, would like to come home.

“In high school in the ’60s, the motto from the teachers was if you want to succeed, leave,” she said.”I did and so did 80 percent of my class mates. Now we are ready to come home, cause no one really left in their hearts.”

Related: With mine layoffs coming, Iron Rangers prepare for hard times (Minnesota Public Radio News).