Pro-industry advocates alter public discourse

From left, Harry Melander, president of the Minnesota Building Trades and Construction Council; Doug Loon, CEO of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce; and Nancy Norr, chairwoman of the Jobs for Minnesotans board.

Critics were winning the public communication battle over two projects of vital importance to economic development in the state.

Supporters, however, of copper/nickel/precious metals production at the proposed PolyMet facility on the Iron Range and also of rebuilding an Enbridge oil pipeline, believed there was solid public enthusiasm for those ventures.

But opponents were good at emotionally and relentlessly saying the projects were not safe and would damage the environment. Their one-sided arguments, often based on questionable information, needed to be countered.

Jobs for Minnesotans was formed in 2012 to do just that. And the group has responded with gusto.

The group was co-founded by the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council, representing 55,000 workers, and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, representing, 2,300 companies and 500,000 employees. Its focus — job creation and investment in Minnesota. And mining and safe energy transportation are today’s main targets that mesh well with the group’s purpose.

“Originally, we learned from conversations with allies that we were doing a poor job of creating a voice for the silent majority … those who supported the projects but didn’t participate, didn’t attend hearings,” said Nancy Norr, director of regional development at Minnesota Power, who was instrumental in organizing the group and is now its chairwoman. Norr said the group has learned from its opponents how to be more effective. 

“We’ve become active and involved and also have become an information provider,” she said. “We believe if we keep going along our common sense way, we will prevail.”

Norr is confident they are on the right side of the issue, and what’s at stake is far too important to become frustrated or fail under the weight of litigation.

“We have an opportunity to gain thousands of new mining jobs in the Duluth Complex,” she said of PolyMet, which would be the first nonferrous mining operation in Minnesota. Critics say the near-$1 billion project would endanger the environment, especially water quality. But Jobs for Minnesotans says the environment and economic development already co-exist well.

PolyMet, which is now fully permitted, would create 360 direct jobs and another 600 spinoff positions. In addition, there would be 2 million hours of construction work.

It would be located near Hoyt Lakes with the processing plant at the repurposed former LTV mining facility. 

Jobs for Minnesotans also supports the Twin Metals nonferrous proposal for an underground mine near Ely and Babbitt.

The Enbridge oil pipeline replacement project would generate thousands more jobs and billions in economic development.

“Jobs (for Minnesotans) met with policymakers and lent its voice to the Line 3 Replacement Project’s Certificate of Need and Route Permit process, and will continue to work with allies to move that project forward,” Norr added.

However, critics argue the pipeline replacement raises serious safety concerns.

The $2.9 billion Line 3 Replacement Project is a 1,097-mile crude oil pipeline that runs from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, to Superior, touching on Wisconsin and Minnesota land from Clearbook to Superior.

Safe or not? The disagreements will continue on both projects. But now supporters of PolyMet and Enbridge have a lot more friends who are vocally supportive.

“We are bringing the voices of the silent majority to policy makers. The voice of the public can win the day, so it’s part of the process. We are here to educate and inform,” Norr said.

Business, labor coalition

The group brings an often unlikely coalition of business and labor together.

“We have been able to align a coalition of statewide individuals and organizations to advocate for projects that are good for communities and create good jobs,” Norr said. “It’s a unique coalition.”

Jennifer Byers is responsible for directing the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s grassroots outreach. She said the purpose of Jobs for Minnesotans is “very important.”

“We support the regulatory process. The northern Minnesota projects are going through that process and Jobs for Minnesotans also knows the importance of that process and supports that as well,” Byers said.

“Minnesota has very high standards and we support them.”

Norr said, “Jobs played a key role in aligning support throughout PolyMet’s regulatory process to obtain its permits by organizing supporters and conducting rallies.”

The state’s strong environmental requirements only make projects like PolyMet and Enbridge better, Byers observed.

State Rep. David Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, said the business-labor bond is strong. 

“We have a common goal — jobs. And the very future of the Iron Range is at stake,” he said. 

Jason George is business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49. He said business and labor within the group get along very well.

“What unites us is the title of the organization, which is jobs. When employers do well, then they put our people to work, George said. “We sit down at the negotiating table and bargain hard. But when it’s all over, we want to prosper together. It’s really that simple,” he added.

Statewide impact

Norr is proud that Jobs for Minnesotans has a statewide influence, even as the current priorities of PolyMet and Enbridge have a distinct northern impact.

“We do consider ourselves a statewide group,” she said, which is evident by a diverse board of directors representing different areas of Minnesota. “These two projects will have an enormous impact throughout the state.”

Board members take their message to political leaders with vigor to advance the projects and views that Jobs for Minnesotans support.

Lislegard said more jobs is the outcome being sought through creation and development of a new mining era and a modern energy transportation system.

The former Aurora mayor joined the Jobs for Minnesotans board in the group’s early stages, but has since stepped down after being elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives. He helped with the group’s growth and now also looks at it from a legislative viewpoint.

“It is definitely a statewide group. That’s how it’s viewed at the Capitol. It has an impact and is respected across the state and in Washington, too,” said Lislegard.

Prior to his election in 2018, Lislegard worked the halls of both the nation’s and state’s capitols on behalf of Jobs for Minnesotans.

Norr said former 8th District U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan was “tremendous” in his support for PolyMet and Enbridge, which was not always warmly received by some of his fellow DFLers.

“And Rep. (Pete) Stauber is carrying on Rep. Nolan’s legacy,” she said of the Republican congressman who followed Nolan into office in Washington.

Norr said it took a lot of extra effort to work with the administration of former Gov. Mark Dayton. “The doors were not easily open to us.”

But she commended new Gov. Tim Walz and his administration. 

“It’s been a real turnaround. The current administration has bent over backwards,” Norr said.

The group has good communication with the offices of Minnesota’s U.S. senators — Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith — even though there are differences on issues.

She commended Sen. Smith for her willingness to listen and discuss those issues.

“We don’t always agree on the issue, but she’s always willing to have a conversation,” Norr said.

Jobs for Minnesotans, she said, “is against a proposed federal study on mining that would include a combined 230,000 acres of the Superior National Forest and Rainy Lake Watershed. 

It’s a “nonsensical approach” to a mining issue, Norr said.

“Rigorous review is more consistent with a specific project,” she added.

Norr said the group has been “active and effective in opposing the mineral withdrawal proposals in the Rainy River watershed.”

‘Sweat equity’

Norr is pleased that the group has become a partner with so many communities in the collective back yard of northern Minnesota. 

“We are part of their social fabric,” she said.

Lislegard is proud to work for the communities of the Iron Range that have been struggling economically. 

“The people of the Iron Range deserve a fighter for them to help create new jobs and retain current ones in the resource-based sectors,” he said. “That’s what we are — a resource economy — and we should be proud of it.

“Jobs for Minnesotans is a fighter for those people,” Lislegard concluded.

Norr said Jobs for Minnesotans isn’t a group with a “powerhouse of dollars.”

“But it has a lot of ‘sweat equity’ from people showing up to have their voices heard on matters,” Norr said.

Business North Contributor Bill Hanna, who has been a writer and editor in the newspaper business for more than 40 years, was a Reporter and Executive Editor at the Mesabi Daily News on the Iron Range from 1985 to 2016. He has won more than 50 state and national awards. He currently writes Sunday columns for the MDN Op/Ed section.