GILBERT — Regional business leaders tackled the topic of future economic development on the Iron Range during a panel discussion Monday night at Nick’s Bar in Gilbert.

Moderated by Melissa Cox, president of the Laurentian Chamber of Commerce, the panelists focused largely on the continued impact of the mining industry on the area economy. Panelists included Iron Mining Association President Kelsey Johnson, Mining Minnesota Executive Director Frank Ongaro and Rick Crum, president of Northeast Technical Services.

Crum said a staple of economic development is coupling it with brownfield developments, pointing to the former LTV site in Hoyt Lakes as a primary example. Cliffs Erie and PolyMet revived the site with private funds, but on a broader scale, he said public money can go a long way in capitalizing on brownfields.

In most cases, Crum added, there are two schools of thought on development: building infrastructure and luring industry, followed by public investment or leveraging public funds up front.

“The public sector has to be part of the development,” he said.

A major hurdle potentially facing the region after the 2020 census is complete, Johnson said, is a “scary prospect” that the Iron Range could lose representation in Congress and the Minnesota Legislature.

Minnesota’s overall population has been trending up 20% while St. Louis County has trended down 10%. That’s where a local push for economic diversity has increased in recent years, not just in the mining industry with copper-nickel mining and taconite plants to feed electric arc furnaces, but across the board.

“We can’t do it without someone thinking outside the box,” Johnson said.

For Ongaro, he’s taking a “mining is mining” approach in advocating for ferrous and non-ferrous project as PolyMet pushes toward construction, Twin Metals nears a mine plan and companies like Teck, AngloGold Ashanti and other prospect the area.

With PolyMet’s stock sale coming in mere days, the possibility Swiss commodities giant Glencore takes a large share of the project is growing, but Ongaro said it should be something that is embraced.

“We’re welcoming all this global investment into the state,” he said.

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