We hear it all the time. The abundant rocks and dirt found on the edges of our Mesabi Range towns became the steel that powered modern American manufacturing and infrastructure. And they still do!

We also hear that all of the modern technology and conveniences we’ve come to enjoy also come from mined minerals. We can mine those, too!

These statements are true, but that’s not enough for the communities of the Mesabi in the 21st Century.

Like an endless voiceover for an animatronic display, I again strike these keys in argument for the economic diversification of this region. If that seems too heady, too controversial, or too confusing, just think of it this way. Our communities are already more valuable than we seem to think they are. We will prosper by realizing this.

Let’s start with the obvious.

Iron

For more than a century, our towns have risen and fallen with demand for steel. At times, the local mining industry has been caught wholly unprepared for technological change, recessions and foreign competition.

It’s challenging to criticize an industry as integrated with the region’s economy, culture and politics as iron mining is here on the Mesabi. But we criticize government, health care and education. Mining deserves no less critical analysis.

Minnesota’s iron ore industry recently celebrated 135 years of mining in Minnesota. But nearly all that ore left the area to become something more valuable, employing and enriching more people elsewhere. Yes, we’ve benefited from the jobs and tax revenue, but that’s a much smaller take than the *value* that left our region forever.

One notable exception was the operation of U.S. Steel’s plant in West Duluth from 1915 to 1979, the only time Iron Range ore was turned into steel in the same region where it was mined. But as industrial historians (and a few old guys in Morgan Park) might remind you, it never ran at full capacity after World War II. Furthermore, U.S. Steel could have modernized that plant, but chose not to.

In the 1990s, we began hearing of value-added proposals at the former Butler Taconite site near Nashwauk. Mining people have often told me that the ore there is special; uniquely suitable for use in modern electric arc furnaces. These same devices put blast furnaces out of commission the world over.

But instead of capitalizing, the last 20 years produced a confounding storm of international corporations, bankruptcy courts, state leases and broken promises at that site. There’s a chance that ore will never be turned into value-added iron. Instead, it could be balled up into taconite, fed into blast furnaces that will close in our lifetimes. This would be an enormous blunder.

Producing high grade iron, steel and even manufactured goods should be a much more important goal than mining commodities alone. State and local governments could make it a priority.

Buildings

At the same time, dependence on a single industry is bad strategy. It deters would-be entrepreneurs, investors and residents not affiliated with that industry.

But what do you do when you’ve been dependent on an industry for so long? How do you get something else going? Well, first you look at what we already have.

Downtowns like Hibbing, Chisholm and Virginia have similar problems. Lower foot traffic makes it harder for traditional retail businesses, as does competition from box stores built out on the highways.

But there’s still value downtown. Solid brick buildings might need interior remodeling, but are very attractive to the right investors. In growing cities, brick buildings with original decorative features are a booming part of the real estate business. Yes, they’re hard to sell to people who want something else, but we probably aren’t marketing our downtown assets to the right people.

I was in Houghton, Michigan, last month. There I saw how a local nonprofit had turned an old power station on the city’s waterfront into a business incubator.

Go find people looking to pay millions for a building just like one in downtown Hibbing in San Francisco. See what it would take to get them to move their tech business to Northern Minnesota. They bring the creative commodities to our towns. We keep the value locally.

Water and Nature

Our current political debate generally pits the “economy” and the “environment” as opposing forces. Each passing year proves this deeper and deeper folly.

Talk to anyone: A fanatical mining advocate or a stubborn opponent of all industrial development. Their personal vision of life in Northern Minnesota includes lakes, rivers and outdoor recreation.

It’s true that an average job in the tourism field pays less an average job at a modern iron mine. However, that doesn’t speak to the value of those jobs in aggregate.

Further, global climate change — a reality observed by governments and private industry the world over — will make Northern Minnesota more viable, not less. When powerful forces realize the value of our water and natural environment, will we be in a position to protect our interests? Or will we be arguing about long shot mining proposals over in the corner.

We humans have created an advanced economic system, but it’s built on the same thing that has always driven civilization: value. So long as the communities of the Mesabi Iron Range work to add value to local municipalities, and encourage activity that adds value to the local economy, we have a future.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org).

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