Minnesota's Iron Range Colleges Attracting Business


Being a college president for thirteen years convinced me of the importance of addressing the interdependence between a campus and its town. Inspired by my third presidency, I saw the need to brand a strategy needed to revitalize community.

We gathered 90 stakeholder partners for a full day meeting at Ironworld, a discovery center for the region to preserve its rich heritage and history. The local residents focused efforts on a place-based institution with the capacity to serve as a catalyst for pulling up the towns across Northeast Minnesota. That was in November, 2000.

“True North,” in navigational terms, is a precise measurement used to calculate one’s direction. In this part of the world, “True North” came to symbolize a drive to unleash the potential of unique and resourceful college towns for what has been a hard-hit region. The goal was to use colleges as a catalyst to help local communities become viable places to live, learn, work and grow. Through a structured process of guided intervention, colleges and their communities learned how to change. I guess you could call it the first steps of reinventing college towns.

We believed we had a society and lifestyle worth sustaining in the northland of America. Small to medium-sized towns represent the very foundation of society. These towns are the primary source of many aspects of our religious beliefs, traditional notions of family and property, and work ethic. These communities also afford an environment where we can enjoy the great outdoors, those things we love doing, whether it’s bicycling, hiking, skating, or just meeting with other people. These are things we believe are important to a good quality of life.

Healthy communities require a strong economy, dependable healthcare, and basic infrastructure, including service and faith-based organizations. But demographic changes, usually driven by the economy, can overpower the healthy pillars of a community. That’s what happened on Minnesota’s Iron Range, mostly because of its reliance on a natural resource-based economy under increasing global pressure. We identified three existing industries critical to the future of the region: taconite mining and processing to make steel; timber; and tourism. In the face of challenges to these industries, people became very resilient; people were able, again and again, to respond to changes in the economy. This can also create a kind of lassitude, thinking the economy will eventually come back on its own. That’s why higher education, government, and the private sector needed to come together to guide a process for change.

There was no better part of my job than getting our college faculty, staff, and students engaged with the town in ways that changed the traditional pattern of interaction. Each college town created a TechNorth Prep Center on its main street – for high-skill technology education and business development. We developed an ongoing alignment strategy to bring problem solvers, leaders and resource managers together in order to facilitate economic growth.

All economies evolve and change. That’s why we didn’t sugarcoat those challenges that were frankly overwhelming, like an aging population, migration of young people and families out of the area, mines closing, and high unemployment rates. But we also knew our communities had many assets --- including a strong tradition of public education .Our schools had to be more than temporary homes for students as they went off elsewhere We needed to create an environment and opportunities to keep at least some of them close to home.

Today there are $6 billion dollars of private investments in development throughout the region. Once hard-hit communities are preparing for housing expansions, public infrastructure improvements, and increased population, including a migration of “downshifting“ Boomers. The area is building off of its unique assets, like natural beauty and quality of life, while utilizing its higher education institutions as catalysts for this change. Each college towns is reinventing itself to attract wealth to the community.

So, if you’re still wondering why a college president is concerned with investments, economic growth, community development and jobs, it’s because of the saying, “As communities go, so go their colleges, and vice versa.” No one has or should have a greater stake in the future of their town than those of us who live in it and love it. Geography, history, economics, and politics combine to create an environment where strong community ties can help people to work together.

The critical components of a healthy community are ultimately about the individual. Minnesota’s Iron Range is a remarkable place: stunningly beautiful and resource rich geography; diverse immigrant history; often turbulent economics; and “boot strapping iron range” politics. But now thanks to True North and the on-going process of reinventing college towns across the region we are gathering the resources to help prepare our communities for new opportunities.