Economic development isn’t what it used to be, and Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board members and Commissioner Mark Phillips are increasingly demonstrating that they understand how times have changed. It used to be that people were physically tied to their place of employment, but that is changing rapidly and it means people are increasingly free to locate in places that offer the kind of amenities and lifestyle they prefer.
And that means communities will be successful in the future when they recognize the growing connection between economic development and community development.
Build a great community, and the people will come, and not just as tourists. They’ll invest in homes and businesses, and as they do, they help build a stronger, more diverse, and more sustainable local economy. We’re already seeing it in places like Duluth and Crosby-Ironton on the old Cuyuna Range, where communities are tapping the interest in outdoor recreation and experiences to revitalize their local economies. We’ve seen it in Ely, even as progress there is threatened by the current divisions over copper-nickel mining.
To some, the investment of $4.95 million in new mountain biking trails on the Iron Range might seem odd. But to those who recognize how the changes in the economy have upended traditional models of economic development, it’s an extremely hopeful signal that IRRRB officials get it— and are willing to put forward the kind of investments that will enhance communities in our region and create entrepreneurial opportunity.
Interest in mountain biking is growing dramatically, and building new trail systems will bring tens of thousands of new visitors to the area every year. That’s great, but it’s only part of the story. World-class amenities, like the trail systems currently being planned, will enhance the reputation and the economies of Iron Range communities. As we’ve seen in Duluth, when a community can highlight itself as a mecca for outdoor recreation, the impact is immediate. First, you see increased visitation, which helps existing businesses succeed. Then comes the inevitable in-migration of new residents who’ve decided they like what they’ve seen on previous visits and want much more. They bring new investment, new businesses, new ideas, new incomes, and new vitality to communities that, in many cases, have been stuck in neutral for too long.
Mountain biking trails will bring bike shops, brew pubs, outdoor gear manufacturers, and new residential construction, just as we’ve seen in Duluth and on the Cuyuna. The new trails will appeal to millennials, but they’ll also attract aging baby boomers, many of whom are now looking for interesting communities in which to retire and enjoy an active outdoor lifestyle.
Mountain biking trails aren’t a panacea, and they won’t revitalize Iron Range communities by themselves. But they are one important piece of an overall economic and community development strategy that can bring new vitality to the region. Perhaps the best news is that it shows that the IRRRB understands how making enticing Iron Range communities contributes to their economic success.