I’ve seen a map that spells the end of the political balance most of us grew up knowing. Trends of the past 30 years will soon accelerate. A new future is nigh.
The map details a recent state estimate of population trends within Minnesota’s legislative districts. Next year’s census will show little to no population growth in Northeastern Minnesota. Thus, two years later this region will again lose even more legislative seats. Nearly all of the political clout that once defined the land of Rudy Perpich and Jim Oberstar will fade away. The remaining districts shall become true swing seats, requiring heightened political skill for any given candidate or party to keep for long.
The political gamesmanship of this matters less than the policies our leaders must enact. Because a bigger problem will be filling open jobs as baby boomers retire, providing education that prepares people for complex modern life, and maintaining older infrastructure as money gets tight. We won’t be able to count on political patronage to fix all of this.
Relax. There’s nothing you can do to stop this coming change. But there is a lot we can do collectively to prepare for what comes next. Doing so will bring about a prosperous and exciting future for the towns of the Iron Range and the entire surrounding region. Failure to do so will only ensure a more difficult transition and missed opportunities.
The crux of this, as with any discussion of population, is people.
As we know, the last several censuses revealed a stagnant or declining population in Northern Minnesota. Meantime, suburban and exurban areas around the Twin Cities metro area enjoyed corresponding population increases. We’ve seen this manifest in the large influence of the suburbs on recent elections. As formerly DFL rural Minnesota has trended more conservative, the suburbs — once bastions of the GOP — now lean light blue.
Recent trends, however, suggest change is ahead. Once considered stagnant, the urban core of the Twin Cities — especially Minneapolis — exploded in population in the last ten years. Based on the state’s pre-census estimates, the heart of Minneapolis is set to increase by an entire legislative seat. And the map makes clear where that seat will come from: the vast swath of land above the merger of northbound I-35E and I-35W.
These last few years I’ve seen a spike in what we could call “Iron Range nationalism.” This would be a sentiment beyond simple pride in our beloved homeland, but rather a contempt for every other place. The Twin Cities have long been the whipping boys in local political rhetoric, often for good reason. But there’s reason to hold back on some of these impulses, especially when it comes to people.
For one thing, you don’t need a population map to know that many of the people who once lived in places like Hibbing and Chisholm now live in places like Andover and Apple Valley. Or, for that matter, downtown St. Paul or Minneapolis. Most of us can name relatives, often from our immediate families, who have made that move.
Furthermore, the reason the Twin Cities didn’t just grow because your kid or your buddy moved there. It’s because of a large influx of people from other parts of the country and immigrants from overseas.
What if I told you that we could get people from the Twin Cities metro area to live here? To start businesses? To enroll children in our schools? In fact, this might well be our best and most stable solution to economic sustainability in this region.
We need people. Northern Minnesota needs all kinds of people to do all kinds of things. That’s not to dismiss the people we have, but to highlight a philosophy this region needs to embrace. People are good. No matter what they look like or where they’re from.
In other words, our policy must become attraction. The Iron Range must become what it was for many of our ancestors: a canvas to paint a life upon. Contrary to the company line, immigrants didn’t come because they loved mining. They came to provide a better life for the next generation, to set them free in body and mind.
We must resist biased notions about outsiders. We don’t need to call people “packsackers” anymore, not if we are to prosper. Attempts to control this attraction of new people will result in people not coming. And that is bad.
Our biggest difficulty will be overcoming the emotions of change. The actual process of attracting people might prove frightfully easy. Both now, and especially in the future, people will look for places like ours — naturally beautiful, temperate, with low cost of living. Accepting the change they might bring is a greater challenge.
An ad in the men’s room of the local movie theater showed a commercial building in downtown Nashwauk selling for $39,000 — less than we paid for my first house in Hibbing twenty years ago. It no doubt needs repairs. The whole region was built around the same time, so everything’s wearing out simultaneously. But the cost of commercial entry is staggeringly low.
Last year I went to the San Francisco bay area to do research. That same Nashwauk building would cost $20 million there, even with pigeons. Despite the cost, people still seem enamored with the big cities. Unless, of course, we provide them a reason to consider the lower cost and better living right here.
There’s an old saying, “demographics is destiny.” One contemporary phrase might be “climate is destiny.” Both support an older wisdom from Ecclesiastes 3, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”
A new season for the Iron Range will come, and soon. What will we make of it?
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).