An Economic Stress Test for Greater Minnesota

Minnesota Public Radio decided to put Greater Minnesota through an “economic stress test” this month.

We visit several communities that face some of the toughest economic problems to be found in Minnesota, and will test the strength and breadth of an economic recovery.

There are many Minnesotas. I thought this was an interesting snapshot of how folks are feeling across the state. I was also hoping for a little more insight, and it would be tempting to Fisk each entry.  There’s audio links on the MPR page, but let’s just take a quick look at each of MPR’s quick looks around the state.


Hibbing: The recovery that wasn’t

I don’t believe I have ever been to Hibbing, so I won’t speak to the qualities of the community itself. The Iron Range of Minnesota has a lot in common with the industrialized Rust Belt of the Midwest, with blue collar jobs and a long history of unionization. Mining is a basic industry–every ton of ore going out of the ground brings new wealth into the state’s economy. Without new wealth being created, there’s no money to pay the butcher or the baker or the candlestick maker. Has Hibbing priced itself out of the world market for it’s product? “there’s no evidence of any sustained increase in demand for products made of steel.” I don’t know, but there’s a big wide world market out there, and you had better be willing to compete.


Bemidji: A tale of two economies

Bemidji lies straight west of Hibbing, on US Highway 2 near the headwaters of the Mississippi. Bemidji has been hit hard by the housing bust–the timber industry has been cutting back for years, but this time they’re just closing up shop and going away. The region does have a tourism draw as a northern anchor of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes, and has been building amenities like the new arena at the college there. The story touches on these, but it focuses on quick fixes, not the long term:

“I don’t think the pain is done yet,” said Dave Hengel, who heads economic development at the Headwaters Regional Development Commission in Bemidji. “I think there’s still some businesses that are struggling…. Is there light at the end of the tunnel? I sure hope so, and I think so. But at this point, it’s the most difficult economy I’ve been in in the 22 years I’ve been here.”


Brainerd: When is a recovery a recovery?

My boss is from Brainerd, so I had best be careful what I say, you know? The Brainerd Lakes region has benefited from it’s 4-lane highway poximity to the Twin Cities, building a strong tourism industry in the heart of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. What the tourists give, the tourist take away—MPR cites Brainerd’s 21% unemployment rate earlier this year as the highest spike across the state.

Brainerd has a lot of potential.  The lakes and scenery close to the Twin Cities would seem to be a prime attraction for the Creative Class.  I don’t know, I really don’t have a good feel for the area since when I’ve been there it’s been as a destination tourist.  I go to the State Park, and I stay at the State Park because I’m out hiking and fishing, not shopping or partying.  I go to a conference at a resort, and I’m trapped at the resort because you can’t walk anywhere.  I know I’m not typical, so I’ll defer judgement on the Brainerd Lakes area to the local knowledge of the guys at Strong Towns blog. They are engineers, but seem to be pretty insightful despite that affliction.

Albert Lea: The manufacturing meltdown

Now we’re getting down into my deck of the prairies. I have been very impressed with the scope of manufacturing activity in Southern Minnesota. It seems like there is somebody doing something in just about every small town within sight of I-90.

“You think of northern Minnesota, you think of mining, you think of timber, things that have been very directly impacted by the type of recession that we’ve had,” said Jennifer Ridgeway, a state labor market analyst.
Ridgeway says even though Albert Lea has no dominant employer, the area relies heavily on factory jobs, which did get hammered.
“Manufacturing is the industry that’s been the hardest hit in terms of job loss. But it’s more likely to be 20 people at a lot of different firms, rather than 100 people at one firm,” she said.

Southern Minnesota is something of an extension of the Midwestern manufacturing belt, of the small machine shops and suppliers in the orbit of Chicago industry. I don’t know if our long winters prompt too many farmers to fiddle around in their machine shops long enough that at least some of them come up with some really neat ideas.  MPR doesn’t talk about that here—they mention people are commuting for jobs, but they don’t pick up on “if not this, then what?”

I suppose that’s not MPR’s job.  That’s ours.


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