The Recharge the Range initiative has wrapped up with a final report released by the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board in recent weeks.
Thousands of people were affected as the global downturn on steel and iron hit the Iron Range in 2015, closing mines, leaving workers without jobs and hurting many ancillary businesses. Since early 2016, more than 600 people have participated in forums and meetings to generate novel ideas to promote economic growth on the Iron Range. Participants from the business world, community, arts and public looked at ways to encourage tourism, recreation, culture and community growth.
Action groups carried out the brainstorming, creating economic development strategies in multiple areas. Over 120 group meetings were held over several months to look at large business expansion and attraction, education development, natural resources, tourism and infrastructure. The public also joined in the conversation at a large event held at the Minnesota Discovery Center.
IRRRB commissioner Mark Phillips said that despite the reopening of the mines there are compelling reasons to carrying on with the mission to diversify the economy.
“Despite current low unemployment rates, underemployment and better paying jobs to keep young people in the area, are ongoing problems,” Phillips said. Creating actionable ways that the entire community could contribute to the idea generating process was an important piece of the equation for the IRRRB.
“The idea was to have an active region-wide planning effort with the public weighing in on what they think the agency’s priorities should be,” said Phillips.
What they heard consistently was that broadband, childcare, affordable housing and workers were needed.
Though the formal portion of Recharge the Range brainstorming is over, Phillips said he hopes more action comes out of the energy generated.
“This is set up now so that committees formed through Recharge the Range have a life of their own to keep the momentum going,” Phillips stated.
IRRRB plans to have a listening session in the future to continue to have public engagement on forming future goals.
The lack of welders was a big concern voiced by many companies during the Recharge sessions, and that conversation has already had measurable results in the form of a new 10-week welding program through Northeast Higher Education District schools.
“We heard that the state university system for welding programs just didn’t get enough students. It was a lack of awareness about the good paying jobs in welding, and that you don’t need a two-year degree to get these entry-level welding jobs,” Phillips said.
A look at infrastructure put broadband as a top priority for vast underserved areas of the Range.
“We are hearing from the customer care center operators that it is possible when someone is mature in the job they could do the job from home. In some rural places where there are childcare shortages, that could tie this all together, but we need broadband in place,” Phillips said.
Despite having the largest underserved area by square mile, no significant state funding for area broadband projects has been in the offing. Now, five Range communities are in the process of making formal applications, and five more groups are preparing to do so.
“We are going to be applying for big money going forward and we expect IRRRB is going to be a component of a local match, and I think we are going to see investment in the next several years,” Phillips said.
Meanwhile, small fixes have been implemented, including WiFi access on Chisholm school buses and hotspots in some downtown areas.
A tourism ambassador certification program has already been launched in the region as an offshoot of the Recharge activities. Sara Ferkul, information team staff at IRRRB, says the program first launched in Rochester, and has formal training from an organization that comes to the area with a custom-designed curriculum specific to the area.
“The tourism ambassador program is really fantastic and when people hear that staff are certified, they are really impressed,” said Ferkul.
Hospitality training to increase staff knowledge of area attractions and activities was identified as a goal coming out of Recharge sessions. Some area staff have already received the training, including employees of Giants Ridge and some area restaurants.
Phillips said that while agriculture is not commonly thought of as a strong economic influence on the Iron Range, there are already some farmers focused on livestock with enough of a toehold to be an opportunity for growth.
“Some things take a little longer to germinate, but the impact of agriculture in the area is significant and could grow with opportunities like adding a rendering facility and federal inspections so those products could be sold in area stores,” he said.