Iron Range native Ida Rukavina on Dec. 21, was named Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation commissioner by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz.
Rukavina, who grew up in Pike Township north of Virginia, becomes the 19th commissioner of the state of Minnesota economic development agency founded in 1941.
Headquartered south of Eveleth, Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation is an economic development agency that reinvests local taconite production taxes back into northeastern Minnesota businesses and communities to strengthen and diversify the economy.
Its mission is to invest resources to foster vibrant growth and economic prosperity in northeastern Minnesota.
Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation provides funding, including low or no interest loans, grants and loan guarantees for businesses relocating or expanding in the region.
A variety of other grants are available to local units of government, education institutions, and nonprofits that promote workforce development and sustainable communities.
Here are Rukavina’s thoughts as she embarks on her job as commissioner.
1. What attracted you about applying for this job?
I was born and raised on the Iron Range of northeastern Minnesota, and I am now raising my own children here. I was drawn to the position because it enables me to serve the people I have known all of my life. The agency, its staff and commissioner are able to work for the people, communities and businesses of our region. That is a significant and very meaningful responsibility. The agency can have a strong and lasting impact on the people and region I love.
2. With your late father having been a longtime IRRR Board member and Iron Range politician, what does this job mean to you personally?
Growing up, my dad shared a lot of important life lessons with me. He was an excellent father and grandfather. He had very strong opinions about protecting the region’s resources and assets and ensuring that the mining tax production dollars remain here. He believed that those dollars should be invested back into the region’s people, communities and businesses. He was very passionate about standing up for and protecting the best interests of the people and instilled these beliefs in me. I am honored to transfer those principles and lessons into the work I do for the region.
3. How would you describe your leadership style?
Most of my past roles have centered on working collaboratively with groups of people. Every individual person has strengths, talents and expertise to offer. I trust people to do what they are good at. Northeastern Minnesota is full of very talented, knowledgeable and skilled experts in a wide array of fields. Using people’s strengths is when the best outcomes are achieved.
4. Where/how/and from who have you acquired the leadership skills required for this job?
All of my past experiences have molded me, and each mentor and boss I have worked under has shaped my ideas and allowed me to learn. In my former union positions, I learned new ways of working with diverse viewpoints to advocate for the best quality of life for workers. Union leaders such as Steve Preble, Steve Giorgi, Cheryl Jones and Carol Carlson were always there for employees, suggesting advice and encouraging our strengths. My time with Senator Amy Klobuchar taught me to rely on common sense, compromise, and seeking out knowledge to make informed decisions. A huge mentor for me was Senator Paul Wellstone who always focused on the good of people. I really took to heart his message that Politics is about People. As a state representative, my father introduced me to service in government that centered on serving people. He inspired me to always keep the people front and center of my decisions. All of the positions I have worked in have taught me to find commonalities between people and identify what we can do together moving forward. There is always common ground to be found.
5. In what specific areas of regional development do you want Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation to focus and why?
The track that the agency has been on for the past several years has been very effective for the region and its economy. I intend to focus the agency’s investments and resources in key areas that support economic development and the region’s people. Those areas include above and below ground infrastructure such as broadband, sewer, water, storm water and electric. The investments help communities support residential and public facility development as well as support the growth and relocation of business and industry. Investments into growing manufacturing businesses such as the Heliene solar panel facility in Mountain Iron—and numerous other manufacturers, for example those related to forest and wood products—are key to continuing the diversification of the region’s economy. Other areas of importance include investments to downtowns, main streets, workforce, child care and housing.
6. After in recent years investing significant funding in collaborative school projects across its service area, what role can and should Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation play in PK-12 education going forward?
The agency’s recent investments in the region’s child care and k-12 schools have modernized the facilities for our students, our youngest citizens, through consolidation, renovations and new construction. Exceptional schools can be business attractors because they create a regional qualified workforce that is critical for business growth. The agency’s attention to schools and education in the region is woven into our mission of economic development.
7. What’s your vision in how the agency can support tourism and quality of life improvements in the region?
Tourism is a key industry in the region. It provides jobs, direct and indirect economic impacts. It attracts visitors to our region who spend money here, and it improves the quality of life for the people who live here. The agency supports tourism through numerous grant programs such as Culture & Tourism, Mineland Reclamation and Regional Trails. The agency also invests into Giants Ridge Recreation Area, which offers some of the best ski trails, golf courses and bike trails in the Midwest, if not the nation.
8. What are your thoughts about further Giants Ridge development?
Giants Ridge Recreation Area is one the region’s most important agency owned facilities with an estimated annual economic impact of $55 million. The agency’s continued investment in capital improvements helps to preserve state assets, and ensures that the region’s citizens, students and other visitors continue to have access to quality recreational opportunities. The improvements are central to the facility’s continued economic impact to the entire region. The Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation Board recently approved $8.2 million for a new indoor recreation center. In addition, I will advocate for new snowmaking infrastructure to be included in the next legislative bonding bill.
9. How do you plan to pull the new politically-split IRRR Board together as one for the region?
The Board members are elected by the people to make the region strong. The agency shares the same mission of making the region stronger and better. As I mentioned earlier, finding common ground is an important lesson I have learned in my past roles. I believe we have common ground in doing what is best for the region and what is best for the people, business and communities of the region.
10. What’s your immediate plans in making personal connections with community, business leaders and others in the agency’s service area?
Community engagement meetings in the immediate weeks and months is a priority. I look forward to personally connecting with business leaders, mayors, city administrators, tribal governments, nonprofits and educators across our 13,000-square-mile service area. Each community is important, and I want to hear directly from them what their needs and priorities are.
11. Some previous agency commissioners have said there’s a steep learning curve for a new commissioner. Who do you plan to “lean on” for knowledge or advice as you step into this job?
Agency staff, community leaders, business leaders, former commissioners and legislative leaders will all be a part of my learning and decisions. Past experiences and previous jobs have taught me to seek out and listen to people in order to make the most informed decisions.
12. What kind of a future do you see for northeastern Minnesota and what needs to happen to achieve a prosperous future?
A thriving future with a lot of potential is ahead for northeastern Minnesota. The region is full of people with an abundance of talent, skills and knowledge who work hard and play hard. If we all work together, we will make the region stronger and better. We have the opportunity to wisely invest the agency’s funds right back into the region to get the best possible returns to our communities, businesses and people. We can use technology, natural resources and our businesses and industries to strengthen our economy, which in turn strengthens our people, families and students.
13. Being born and raised on the Iron Range and an Iron Range resident, what in your opinion has Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation meant to the region as it enters its 82nd year?
The agency was founded in 1941 by Governor Harold Stassen and the Minnesota State Legislature. It was established by law to diversify the region’s economy, and it has done that. The region is home to not only the mineral and mining industry but to a strong core of manufacturing, forest productivity, tourism and a large variety of small businesses. The agency is vital to our communities and people because it invests the mining dollars directly back into our downtowns, main streets, commercial sectors, schools, towns, infrastructure, recreation and trails.
The agency has assisted with the expansion of existing businesses, the recruitment of new businesses, the construction of new schools and college systems, the modernization of water treatment plants and other infrastructure, bringing in broadband and robust internet connectivity, new roadways, airports runways, industrial parks, child care centers, hundreds and hundreds of miles of trail systems, outdoor recreation development for all seasons, community parks, and cultural centers. Almost every facet of our communities and daily life intersect in some way with something the agency has supported. It really is incredible work that has been accomplished. I look forward to carrying on the work and helping to improve the region for the people.
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