When it comes to economic development, it’s time we better define the boundaries of “the Iron Range.”
For too long, we’ve talked of “The Range” as one thing— a region stretching from roughly Cotton to just this side of the Canadian border— tied together both politically and economically, by a dependence on iron mining. Yet that simplistic view masks the significant differences, and potentially divergent futures, between the various communities that make up the broader Range.
This region, for better or worse, is dominated by the politics of the Mesabi Range, even as other parts of northern St. Louis County have the potential to move in a very different direction economically and, ultimately, politically as well. We’re not there yet, as the recent tussle over the future of Twin Metals makes clear. Our political leaders still look to mining as the economic driver of the region’s economy even as increasing numbers of the region’s residents are pushing in a different direction, at least for some communities in our region.
Some places, like Cook and Orr, have always been on the margins of the Range. These are communities with a much stronger historical connection to the timber industry than mining and a far more independent mindset and entrepreneurial culture than we find on the Mesabi Range.
Communities like Ely and Tower may have begun as mining towns of the old Vermilion Range, but it’s been half a century since the last mines up here shut down. A transition to something else— communities whose economies are based on quality of life— is well underway in Ely and is finally showing signs of progress in Tower as well. But a political culture dominated by the attitudes of the Mesabi Range keeps trying to pull these communities back into the fold. It’s almost as if the region’s political culture won’t let go of its “one-size-fits-all” approach to economic development.
For years, Duluth was largely part of that culture as well, but it broke free in recent years and its leaders have moved to remake the city as a great place to live. Progressive leaders took advantage of the city’s outstanding recreational opportunities and a dramatic natural backdrop, to attract a growing number of young and forward-thinking entrepreneurs. In the process, they turned a community that was teetering on the edge of Rust Belt status into a city that is increasingly recognized for its vibrancy and economic activity.
The old thinking that has dominated our region suggests that without mining, the area will be dependent only on tourism, with its relatively low wages and seasonal work. But that’s far too narrow a view. Tourism is certainly seasonal in nature, but it is only one aspect of an economic development model based on quality of life. Communities that are great places to live attract people, not only as places to visit, but as places to live, to invest, and to create livelihoods.
You want to encourage small business? Show people a community that’s something special and the businesses will come. That’s been demonstrated time and again all across the country. We’ve seen it in Duluth, we’ve seen it in Ely, and we’re beginning to see it in Tower.
A quality of life economy is far more than the hospitality industry we normally associate with tourism. It encompasses real estate, construction, health care, education, finance, retail, specialty products, and small manufacturing. Take a look at the region’s economic statistics. These are the industries that are creating new jobs in our region.
There is no question that such an approach is different from the model of development we’ve seen for years on the Mesabi Range, where we have relied on the mines to create the jobs that have attracted and held residents. Increased mechanization guarantees a continued slide in mining employment under such an economic model and the nature of the industry guarantees an economy that lurches from crisis to crisis.
But our communities north of the divide don’t have to share that future, and our political leaders should be working to break free of old economic and political mindsets that are holding our region back. Communities up here have a tremendous amount to offer— spectacular lakes, beautiful forests, abundant wildlife, clean air and water, and a lifestyle that many people hunger to achieve. Our communities have created amenities, like the arts and outstanding civic organizations, which further contribute to our quality of life.
These are amenities that, if protected and encouraged, are the foundation for healthy and economically vibrant communities.
That’s why it’s time for politicians north of the divide to cast off the politics of the Mesabi Range and embrace a different, and more sustainable future.