We conducted ten weeks of interviews, research, and community visits in Northeastern Minnesota. This website includes suggestions and themes that may be best suited, strategic, implementable, and beneficial to consider while diversifying and developing the economy within the Iron Range. Our suggestions are supported by examples of successful economic diversification in other locations across the country. We found that the communities most successful at economic diversification were those that collaborated and were receptive to new perspectives. Our findings and analysis of successful diversification models in other communities formed the foundation of our recommendations. As Jessalyn Sabin, co-founder of the organization ReGen, says:
“I think it will be useful for you to express the need to come together and change that [separated] culture so that we are the Iron Range, not this town, this town, and this town. Encouraging the back and forth between towns and cities and townships – it’s even on that level – is really big.”
By using examples from outside the Iron Range, we hope to add new ideas and perspectives to the regional conversation concerning economic development.
These suggestions stem from a set of three different regions including Kentucky, North Carolina, and Colorado, which we portray as case studies exemplifying successful economic development models comparable to Northeastern Minnesota and its economy. Each location shares similarities with the Iron Range, and an overarching reliance – past or current – on extractive industries. We chose to include the organizations functioning in these outside regions in order to discern and demonstrate the ways in which members of a community or region can work together to improve the place’s economy. These organizations serve as models, references, and contacts that groups and individuals in the Iron Range may benefit from studying. Ultimately, we hope this resource contributes to the conversation around economic development within Northeastern Minnesota, putting power and knowledge into the hands of community members and organizations interested in creating resilient economic growth and development.
The three themes we identified during our fellowship are entrepreneurship and leadership, revitalizing downtown areas, and community collaboration and communication. These themes are not unique to our case regions and they all interrelate. The Iron Range has many institutions, organizations, and programs which closely parallel those we showcase on this website, and we urge Iron Range organizations to connect with these groups and learn from each other. The problems the Range faces are shared by many regions, and their solutions may require that these regions join together.
In order for a region to be resilient and confidently deal with economic challenges, there needs to be a culture of entrepreneurship and leadership. This is empowering community members to try new things, start businesses, work together, and solve problems. Although leadership is frequently romanticized this way, there is no one charismatic leader, inspired mayor, or benevolent CEO who will emerge and lead everyone to a better future. Leaders will not be brought in, they will be cultivated locally and will work as a community to create change.
This parallels the need for economic diversification, just as the Iron Range has been left dependent on one large industry, dependence on a handful of powerful businessmen and career politicians is equally risky. Creating a community of many leaders provides a kind of power source for development efforts and helps counteract feelings of apathy common in economically depressed regions. In rural Colorado, our research quickly turned up strong examples of this theme.
Downtown areas are the center of a community in many ways, including culturally, geographically, and economically. That being said, a thriving community is also centered around a thriving downtown–characterized by a vibrant, easily navigable area with many small and locally owned businesses. Community members can be found walking about, sitting on well-placed benches, and attending farmers markets in the nearby park after stopping for a bite to eat at one of many local restaurants. Creating an area that people want to be in inherently creates a draw for businesses to develop there, and when businesses develop in an area, it draws people there. In other words, downtown revitalization creates a positive feedback cycle that supports economic development and a more resilient Iron Range. Although these initiatives are found nationwide, we chose North Carolina to showcase this theme.
The towns in the Iron Range are connected by their economic dependency on natural resources and their economic struggle to pursue more resilient forms of economic development. Working together to solve these common issues is the path to a more stable future for the region. Our research and interviews accentuated the positive aspects and results derived from collaboration and communication between community members, communities, and regions. Improving connection between the towns in the Iron Range will create more informed, resilient, and communally and individually beneficial economic development for the entire region. Based on the case studies, we have selected Kentucky as our focus area for this theme.