Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Time to talk honestly about those man camps

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Now that the DFL primary in District 3A is over, let’s talk honestly about those man camps.

As anyone who paid attention to the race knows, Bill Hansen’s suggestion that a copper-nickel boom would bring man camps to house workers, and that those camps would bring increased crime to the area, was widely derided as an attack on union construction workers and PolyMet.

That attack line was far-fetched from the beginning, and I see very little evidence in the poll returns to suggest it had much impact on voters. Hansen always had an uphill battle simply because of population and geography, and his campaign was well aware of it. They knew that the numbers in the newly-configured 3A are in the northwest, far from Hansen’s North Shore base. They had banked on Eric Johnson and Heidi Omerza running stronger (to take votes from Rob Ecklund, who was clearly the candidate to beat) than they ultimately did. They knew full well that a two-person race, as it ultimately turned out to be, was a very uphill climb. After all, voting in this region has always followed geography more than issues, and this election was no exception. Even so, Hansen came within 450 votes, and it was his deep skepticism of copper-nickel mining that helped him make major gains over his 2002 primary showing, when he lost to David Dill in the old 6A, a district that did not include Koochiching County. Hansen’s biggest improvement came in the Ely area, where he topped the voting in every township surrounding Ely and significantly increased his vote totals in the city of Ely itself. In 2002, Dill easily outpolled Hansen in the Ely area, 541-274. This time around, Ecklund’s margin over Hansen was much narrower, just 572-520 in the Ely area as a whole. The copper-nickel issue clearly worked to Hansen’s advantage in the primary, bringing volunteers and enthusiasm to his campaign, and making an election that should have been a rout into what was a pretty close race in the end.

But, I digress. We were going to talk about those man camps. While the frenzy of a political race can rob almost any statement or issue of context, this was a particularly egregious example. Hansen’s claim that a copper-nickel boom (of the kind envisioned by Frank Ongaro of Mining Minnesota) would bring man camps is inarguably true, as was his prediction that such camps would bring social problems to the area.

Indeed, the suggestion would come as no surprise to anyone who took part in the planning efforts conducted by the East Range Readiness Committee back in the mid-2000s, since housing for workers and their impact on communities, was one of the major topics of discussion. It wasn’t Hansen raising those concerns at the time. It was then-Hoyt Lakes Mayor Marlene Pospeck, a copper-nickel mining supporter, who was calling the potential for man camps a “big concern,” according to a Minnesota Public Radio report from 2006.

The story continued: “Construction workers are often set up in makeshift trailer camps— places Pospeck says are known for rowdy behavior, frequent police calls, and an increased need for social services. It’s one thing to deal with one major construction project, but two or three or more could be a huge strain on the local communities.”

No one attacked Pospeck for disrespecting the Iron Range building trades for raising such obvious concerns. But then, it wasn’t the political season, when little things like facts and context are often tossed out the window.

Pospeck, a smart lady whom I’ve always respected, is probably old enough to remember the impact of the 1950s taconite boom, when thousands of workers and their families set up in places like the Evergreen Trailer Park, near Aurora, which was perhaps the largest man camp of its day.

Doug Nemanic, who grew up in Aurora during that era, and today is a professor of communications at Penn State Altoona, recalled those days in an interesting essay that appeared in Hometown Focus a few years ago. As Nemanic recounts, the residents and businesses of Aurora initially welcomed the influx of new residents, but that quickly changed when it became clear that the new people, soon derided as “packsackers,” didn’t share the same values as folks in Aurora or Hoyt Lakes. “It didn’t take long for this crowd to make themselves undesirable,” noted Nemanic. He recalls a town where people rarely locked their doors quickly changed its character, and not in a good way. Nemanic recalls thefts, drunken fights, threats with knives, and shootings. “In some ways life was reverting back to the pioneer days,” he recalled.

Within a few years, the workers had mostly moved on, leaving what Nemanic says was “a lot of bitter memories and a mistrust of newcomers that made life a lot tougher for the kids whose families had decided to settle there.”

One could cite many more examples of the community disruption that comes from an influx of workers, many of whom will invariably be temporary. Folks in International Falls certainly remember the deplorable man camps established by BE&K, the Georgia-based contractor that undertook the major expansion of the Boise Paper plant there in 1989. Crime, prostitution, drunkenness, and much more were all a part of that experience. I wasn’t there, but our Cook-Orr Editor Tom Klein, who was News Editor at the Daily Journal in those days, was in the thick of it and the incidents he recalls should be a cautionary tale. These experiences leave communities scarred, in many cases for generations, and they reflect the real context of Hansen’s remarks.

And contrary to the creative claims made in a certain newspaper, Hansen was never singling out PolyMet. As video of his man camp remarks make clear, he was referring to PolyMet, Twin Metals, and all the other projects that boosters have claimed could turn northeastern St. Louis County and much of central Lake County into the copper-nickel version of the Bakken oil boom. No one would suggest that PolyMet, by itself, is going to bring an economic boom to the region, and certainly not one rivaling the Bakken.

While prospects for a copper-nickel boom have certainly dimmed, there’s no doubt that such a boom would bring in thousands of workers from outside the area, either to work construction or to fill the much smaller number of mining jobs that would follow. Sure, a relative handful of these jobs would be filled by local workers, but the region simply doesn’t have the available workforce to undertake the scale of work that copper-nickel boosters envision from their “boom”.

Everyone is well aware that this would involve many outside workers, who would be housed in temporary man camps, trailer parks, or whatever you want to call them. And they would create social problems. We can argue about how severe those problems might be, but anyone who suggests Hansen simply invented this concern, or was slamming local construction workers, should familiarize themselves with a little Iron Range history.

It was mere politics that turned Hansen’s accurate assessment of a concern shared by many into a bogus line of political attack. Now, with the voting over, perhaps we can get back to reality.

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