Below is Vice President of Program Neal Cuthbert’s foreword from the McKnight-commissioned Northeast Minnesota: New Possibilities in the North Country, an essay by Jay Walljasper exploring opportunities and challenges in communities north of the metro area and east of Brainerd and Bemidji.
Jay Walljasper’s “Northeast Minnesota: New Possibilities in the North Country” was commissioned by The McKnight Foundation as part of our Food for Thought series — a collection of independent reports to inform our understanding of the sectors in which we operate and our related program strategies. This is the second of four case studies examining the opportunities and challenges in Greater Minnesota. In the first report, Walljasper examined some of the big ideas coming out of the southeast, including the development of the Destination Medical Center in Rochester, the vibrant arts scene in Lanesboro, and many other examples of economic diversification.
In this report, he heads to the beautifully diverse landscape of northeast Minnesota. He finds that some conditions have hardly changed from 30 years ago, including the heated debates over the effects of mining as communities consider ways to preserve both livelihoods and the environment. Such dire economic pressures are precisely what led to the inception of the Minnesota Initiative Foundations, six independent regional philanthropic organizations that have disbursed more than $285 million a year since their founding in 1986. Under the direction of Virginia McKnight Binger, then board chair of McKnight, and Russ Ewald, then president, McKnight created these unique entities because it believed that the people in the best position to lead in Greater Minnesota were those who lived and worked in the communities themselves. Thirty years later, we still hold on to that principle and remain committed to a prosperous and resilient Greater Minnesota.
This report explores communities north of the metro area and east of Brainerd and Bemidji. Walljasper reports that the region’s economy now goes far beyond mining to include tourism, education, health care, aviation, and advanced manufacturing. Mining makes up only 12 percent of the economy in the six-county region that encompasses the Iron Range. Duluth, with unemployment at 2.9 percent, is winning national accolades. Outside magazine recently named it “America’s Best Town” and lauded its access to adventurous outdoor recreation such as trout fishing and downhill skiing. Aitkin County has been recognized for offering innovative senior services, and cities like Proctor and Pine City are reviving their downtowns with high levels of community engagement.
As in all regions of the state, the challenges faced by the people in northeast Minnesota are not easy to overcome. For answers, local leaders are increasingly taking a deeper look at their community’s entire range of assets and resources. We hope this report will spark more interest in this bountiful region and offer a fresh lens through which we can see all its potential.