U of M experts visit the Range

VIRGINIA — Helping Iron Range industries coexist and cooperate is the goal of a new effort by the University of Minnesota.

University experts are participating in listening tours across the state to help spur economic development opportunities for communities.

Dr. Brian Herman, vice president for research at the U of M, said the group found common themes during the tour, and its Thursday visit to the Iron Range was no different. Workforce issues topped the list, he said, as did balancing industries and collaboration.

“The message across the state is that they’re not dealing with these things alone,” Herman said. “It’s more statewide, not isolated.”

Common issues will allow the U of M to more broadly address communities’ concerns, which Herman said it wants to do by being a physical, intellectual and expert resource.

Among the primary concerns, said Dr. Maura Donovan, executive director of the university’s Office of Economic Development, is attracting a workforce. Her office was created about 18 months ago to enhance the university’s footprint on regional economic development efforts.

One of her takeaways from the group’s tour is that the state — especially rural communities — can do more to market the lifestyle and perks of living in Minnesota.

“We need to be more forceful to attract talent and businesses,” she said.

On Thursday, the team met with representatives of Minnesota Power, the Iron Range Resource and Rehabilitation Board, Essar Steel and others to discuss the area’s economy. One of the challenges the Iron Range faces is developing a secondary economy, which Donovan said is often impacted when start-up companies seek local loans, and when rural communities don’t have a full range of resources for larger, established businesses.

Herman said one of the resources the university can provide is performing analysis on the business model of a local startup to aid the loan agency on its decision.

A separate university study is also looking at how thriving rural areas are succeeding. The U of M group said rural areas do lose a fair amount of residents to urban areas, but added it’s all about the lifestyle. A number of rural areas are attracting young professionals in waves, and the study is looking at what those communities are doing and how it can be replicated in other areas.

“The community needs to support the business across the lifespan of the business,” Herman said. “Our resources and assets are easy to find and take advantage of.”

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