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In tough times, IRRRB shouldn’t lose focus

These indeed are difficult times on the Iron Range.
The headlines from the last several months are hard to ignore and regional leaders are rightly worried that the latest downturn in the taconite mining industry is different, if not long-lasting.
That was the backdrop Friday at Fortune Bay when Mary Finnegan, a deputy commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, met with a handful of leaders from the Ely, Babbitt and Tower areas.
Billed as one of several “listening sessions” conducted by IRRRB staff around the region, the meeting was scheduled in part to gather input on “area priorities and business, community and workforce development needs.”
Without question, the IRRRB is a unique asset and one that has boosted and benefited Ely in many ways through the decades.
Via production taxes paid by area mines, the IRRRB has supported countless local infrastructure projects, improvements to Ely school facilities and the campus of Vermilion Community College, housing and tourism-related ventures and more than a few projects that have resulted in new jobs in Ely.
Its impact is virtually everywhere.
But shutdowns and layoffs at the mines not only impact the employees, their families and the spin-off jobs from the industry, but the entire region itself because less taconite production results in less production tax, and less revenue for the IRRRB to collect and distribute.
It’s a reality that IRRRB staff are dealing with as they work to establish a strategic plan and chart a course for 2016 and beyond.
The gathering at Fortune Bay was well-intentioned, but a bit haphazard.
With no clearly-defined agenda, it veered off course and far too much time was spent on matters that, with all due respect, will do little to remedy the economy on the Iron Range or the Ely, Babbitt and Tower areas.
Giants Ridge is a heck of an attraction, but we’re hard-pressed to believe that any sort of effort to lure some of its visitors to Ely will have any significant impact on our economy.
Same goes for a joint marketing plan involving several area communities or a one-stop shop for making room reservations on the Iron Range.
Make no mistake about it, tourism is and will continue to be a key cog in the local economy. We support any and all efforts to draw more visitors to the region, but let’s face it, tourism would have to grow exponentially, at rates that are impossible to attain, for it to have the impact that would really turn our community around.
Tourism-related jobs are already plentiful in the Ely area, particularly in the summer when a growing number of businesses can’t find enough help.
The problem is simple: those jobs don’t provide the wages or benefits to sustain a family or convince many young people to put down roots and start families in the Ely area.
We probably all know residents who work two or even three low-paying jobs to make ends meet.
No doubt most of us know someone recently laid off from a mining operation and facing an uncertain economic future.
A news release from the IRRRB indicated its strategic plan will “support business development, invest in vibrant communities, grow the workforce of tomorrow, and advance value-added mineral opportunities.”
We’d like to suggest another, relatively simple focus, as the agency looks forward: sustainable employment.
Locally, and regionally, that should be at the top of any priority list when it comes to economic development.
We realize there’s no magic wand, and if it was easy, the Range would be humming, more downtown businesses would stay open year-round and our schools would be growing - instead of operating with miniscule enrollments.
The IRRRB wanted answers from local officials and we wish one of them would have said this: “Let’s direct our energy at sustaining, creating and luring jobs that will allow people to stay on the Range, or convince them to come back to the Range and raise their families. And let’s put our resources into helping communities preserve their assets, and provide the infrastructure they need to make their town an attractive place to live and work.”
In Ely, maybe the IRRRB should do whatever it takes to convince the Department of Revenue to add 20, 30 or 40 jobs here instead of only six. Even when production taxes are down, the IRRRB can’t shy away from investing in infrastructure projects that - if it stepped away and forced them to be paid entirely by local taxes - would result in a 20 or 30 percent levy increase. Make sure we continue to have schools and medical facilities that are critical to the vitality of any community.
Get the most bang for your buck and make the Range not just a place to play, but a place to work and play, be it in mining, technology, public service, small business or anything else that will make it viable for graduates of Ely, Eagan or elsewhere.
As you listen, IRRRB, don’t get distracted by the small stuff and keep your focus. In many ways, our future depends on it.

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