Can Iron Range build an economy not driven by mining?

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).

  • John

    I grew up a mile or two from where that picture was taken. The preferred route for biking into town was along old highway 53, which is buried somewhere under that pile (I think – it looks like the right spot from here).

    I think the range can potentially thrive/survive without mining, but there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way the residents of the range think. (I also suspect that specialty manufacturing is not the future of the range, because the logistical infrastructure for today’s two-day, free prime shipping just isn’t there, but that’s a solvable problem – Digikey seems to be doing okay, and I think they’re even farther from a freeway.) Hibbing has/had a “high tech” manufacturer move in – they seemed to be doing okay for a while. I can’t remember the name, and it’s been a while since I’ve been over that way.

    High tech, IT jobs may well be the future – IRRRB could potentially get the infrastructure moved in, but it needs to be something different from another call center.

    Fundamentally though, Aaron Brown pretty well hit it on the head. There are some great resources up there, and managed well, they could last for centuries. The weather will keep the riff raff out, or keep them in depending on your perspective. It’s just plain cold in the winter. The summers, however, are spectacular (both weeks of it).

    • Jack Ungerleider

      If you can get it shipped in using two day express, then you should be able to ship it out the same way.

      • John

        yeah, that’s the thing. two day shipping almost always takes three days to get to my parents’ house. Two days to Minneapolis, a third to get from Minneapolis to Virginia (though I’ve noticed that the world’s largest online retailer seems to be often struggling to make their two day commitment lately, even to Minneapolis, so it may not be entirely the shipping company).

        • jon

          Amazon will extend your prime membership by a month for each order that doesn’t make it in two days. Just need to let them know that it didn’t make it there in two days…. I had a string of them not making it, I complained once, and then all the sudden two days meant two days again…

          • John

            That’s good to know. I read the fine print when one of the first things I ever ordered took 5 or 6 days. When I was digging through it, I found out that “guranteed” just means “we’ll try, but no promises for two days.” It was storms that time, so I knew the reason, but I was curious.

    • rst1317

      The IRRRB is a key part of the economic woes of the Iron Range. It’s unelected board goes from spending scheme to spending scheme, depending on what is in fashion and who has political connections. Most all of the companies that are successes, would’ve been successful without it. Others, like Giant’s Ridge, limp along on taxpayer money and take customers and employees from other privately funded companies.

  • MrE85

    It will be tough to make a living on the Range without timber or mining. Tourist: “Look at the scenery! You must love living here!” Ranger: “You can’t eat scenery.”

    • ☭¯_(ツ)_/¯☭ ✯The Wickerman✯

      It’s tough to make a living anywhere. If you “can’t eat scenery”, then do what people everywhere have done throughout history, move to where the work is so you can eat. You can’t have both wilderness and mining, and wanting this crap and development so you don’t have to move is pissing in your own pool.