Tours of U.S. Steel’s Minntac mining facility in Mountain Iron will be available during the 93rd Annual Meeting of the Minnesota Section of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration, which is April 11-13 in Virginia.

Northeastern Minnesota is already full of miners.

But just wait.

Up to 1,000 mining professionals from throughout the midwest are coming to Virginia.

The 93rd Annual Meeting of the Minnesota Section of the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration (SME) is April 11-13 at Iron Trail Motors Event Center.

“We’re really excited to come up to Virginia to the new venue,” Corie Ekholm, Minnesota Section SME chair said. “It puts us closer to our operating mines and gives our local businesses a chance to provide some food.”

Iron ore was discovered in 1890 in nearby Mountain Iron, leading to development of the Mesabi Range.

Today, the City of Virginia is surrounded by mining operations with United States Steel Corp.’s Minntac Mine to the northwest, Cleveland-Cliffs, Inc.’s Minorca Mine to the north and United Taconite to the south.

For decades, the annual conference has been held at Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

But with the opening of the new Iron Trail Motors Event Center, organizers made the move to Virginia.

“It was kind of an opportunity that presented itself,” Ekholm said. “Duluth has always treated us well, but when the vendors came to town they ended up coming up to the Range to do the (mine) tours. It takes a full day to drive up from Duluth to do a mine tour and now you can do a tour in the morning and attend a short course in the afternoon.”

The three-day conference includes a series of technical programs that focus on mining practices and technology used in midwest minerals industry and innovative approaches utilized in northeastern Minnesota’s iron ore industry.

“We’ve always been trying to find a place big enough to hold the conference and all the businesses.” Katrina Davis, Minnesota SME vice chair said. “It’s nice to have it in our backyard and be able to support all the businesses.”

Mining remains a keystone of northeastern Minnesota’s economy.

Virginia Mayor Larry Cuffe says the conference will underline the importance of mining to the region and nation.

“Mining matters,” Cuffe said. “This mining conference is going to highlight what we need to do to move mining forward. It’s going to showcase the mining in northeastern Minnesota and the importance of mining not only to the local economy, but the state and national economy as well.”

Cuffe said the city is opening its arms to the conference.

To help welcome the conference, Cuffe says he’s working on greeting conference miners with a large billboard or banner.

“It will be held in a friendly environment,” Cuffe said of the conference. “It’s the engine that drives our economy.”

The six northeastern Minnesota taconite plants directly employ more than 4,000.

Across the state, the iron mining industry supports more than 11,000 additional jobs and contributes more than $3 billion to the Minnesota economy.

According to the SME, almost 20 tons of new minerals need to be provided each year for every person in the United States to manufacture needed daily products such as appliances, bridges, buildings, cars, trucks, and pipe.

James Kochevar, Cleveland-Cliffs, Inc. vice president of iron ore operations, is keynote speaker at the conference.

Kochevar will speak about producing cleaner steel for a sustainable future, Ekholm said.

Vendor exhibits in both hockey arena spaces at the event center will offer close-up views of the newest mining technologies and innovations.

All 145 exhibit booths available to trade vendors are expected to be full, Ekholm said.

“We’ve seen really strong support from the vendors,” Ekholm said. “I do have to give credit to our vendors because they’ve been waiting for us to get back in business since 2020. We’ve had some vendors who instead of taking a refund, have deferred taking a refund and are coming back.”

Tours of United States Steel’s Minntac Mine in Mountain Iron will also be available to conference attendees. Minntac Mine is North America’s largest taconite plant.

“We’re very thankful to Minntac to allow us to do this,” Davis said. “The two Minntac tours will be huge for people who don’t know a lot about mines. I think it will be an eye opener for people.”

The conference was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic.

The 2021 conference was a scaled down virtual version.

Hotels in Hibbing, Chisholm, Mountain Iron, Virginia, and Eveleth will benefit from the conference along with restaurants and other small businesses, Ekholm said.

“I think a lot of local businesses and hotels and restaurants will see a little more excitement than they would normally see on weekdays,” Ekholm said.

The conference is the first at the newly-opened convention center, Tylar Lundeen, project lead for the Lundeen Group, marketing manager at the center.

“The economic impact it’s going to have in the region is going to be great,” Lundeen said. “In less than a year, it’s incredible to get an event like this. Wanting to be in the region was important to them and once the facility was built it was a great opportunity to get in touch with them.”

With in-person conferences on hold the last two years, Ekholm said mining professionals are looking forward to getting together again.

“What a lot of people like from our conference is the ability to network,” Ekholm said. “They see people they haven’t see in a year and are able to catch up and find out what the industry is doing. I see people at the conference that I don’t see for a year.”

All six northeastern Minnesota taconite mines are located within the 13,000 square-mile service area of the Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation.

The Eveleth-based state of Minnesota economic development agency is funded by taconite production taxes paid by the six iron ore producers.

The agency refunds a portion of the production tax to producers, which match the refund and with agreement from United Steelworkers, invest the total into capital improvement projects at the plants.

Cuffe said the city and event center is going all-out to ensure the conference goes smoothly.

“We’ve hired up to ten full-time employees to help with this conference and other events,” Cuffe said. “We have to provide what they need and provide them with the caterers they want. I hope we can showcase this and hope they have a successful conference.”


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