Sunday, December 13, 2009 By Aaron Brown
Problems of an iron world demand iron will
By Aaron J. Brown
Ironworld (by any other name) is, or was, the interpretive center designed for the sole purpose of telling the story of the Iron Range. In a fitting metaphor, the facility has struggled to survive since our region’s economic and population decline that began in the early 1980s.
Known briefly as the Minnesota Discovery Center before its abrupt closure last month, Ironworld, previously the Iron Range Discovery Center, explored the human struggles that turned an isolated patch of wilderness into one of the nation’s most fascinating cultural and industrial places. The Iron Range remains a fascinating region of great potential; but that potential cannot be realized until we get a few things straight. Among them, Ironworld. Or Minnesota Discovery Center. Or whatever you want to call it. In many ways we can consider this matter a metaphorical test of the Range’s 21st century capabilities.
In the old days of the Iron Range, such as those described in the Ironworld museum experience and in the irreplaceable records and archives held within the Iron Range Research Library, these sorts of discussions were shorter-lived. A library, or a theater, or a cultural center of any kind would exist by the sheer will of one of the following: 1) a mining company, 2) a prominent official and his followers, 3) the people who lived, worked and died in this place. I dare you to tell me this is not still true today. Our history – the history detailed quite extensively in an empty building now being shuttered for the winter – displays many such examples. How quickly they can be forgotten without reminder.
The Iron Range struggles with Ironworld much the way it struggles with other problems: employment diversification in a mining region, population and school enrollment decline, a changing global economy. The answer to these and all woes is connected: Self-awareness and self-determinism, brilliantly combined with a collectivist spirit of the common good. That’s the spirit of the Iron Range, or it was once and could be again.
I have noticed a few trends in my decade as a young Iron Range professional, a label I am rapidly aging out of. Many well-meaning (and a handful of self-serving) public officials, community activists and opinion leaders are often sidetracked from the problems we face by fads, false idols and desperation. The jobs fairy never deposits quite as many FTEs as promised and that big Whatsit Factory on the edge of town, well, that always turns out to be too good to be true after all. Maybe Ironworld can’t be Disneyland or Branson, Missouri. Maybe that’s a good thing.
Tomorrow, the Iron Range Resources board will meet for its regular meeting. No one expects, nor is the agency required to provide, a final solution for the Minnesota Discovery Center problem. Indeed, everyone thought such a solution had already been forged with the new independent nonprofit status for Ironworld a couple years ago. I have many friends involved and probably too many conflicts of interest for this statement to be considered objective. Nevertheless this is no time for objectivity.
There is much we don’t yet know about why Ironworld, or the Minnesota Discovery Center, had to close so abruptly and in such an ugly way. There are only a few ways to reopen it, none that are politically pleasant. There are many we could and perhaps eventually will blame – management, to be sure, and probably the board of directors – but that’s all academic now. The real question is can the Iron Range run itself? Can we tell our story, live our story, without killing ourselves?
A 21st century Iron Range economy will look a lot different than the old red ore mining economy of the last century. It will, however, be built much the same way: brick by brick, with shovel-dug foundations that hold longer than our natural lifespans or those of our children. That’s what our immigrant ancestors had in mind and, despite our seemingly new problems, this remains the worthiest goal.
Wouldn’t it be great if their story, our story, was preserved for those here on the Iron Range to experience and learn from? Wouldn’t it be great if we honored our past, and our future, by accomplishing small goals, one at a time, until we’ve realized a big one? Such an outcome is still possible, for Ironworld and the Iron Range. Let’s get it right.
Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Read more or contact him at his blog MinnesotaBrown.com. His recent book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” won the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award. He will be signing books this Saturday, Dec. 19 from 1-3 p.m. at the Village Bookstore in Grand Rapids.