After the numerous challenges faced by northeastern Minnesota’s iron mining industry in 2016, Jeff Lee believes 2017 will offer better news for most communities in our region.
“I am an optimist at heart,” said Jeff, Grand Rapids State Bank’s senior vice president-lending, “but 2016 was a tough year for many taconite plants in our region and many of the vendors who supply them. The vendor community seems to have weathered the storm for the most part, and many of our customers have weathered that storm for the most part. That isn’t saying that people weren’t affected: they were. However, many of the businesses who are part of the mining industry supply chain are still out there battling.
“I think a lot of those vendors learned things from our big downturn in the 1980s,” Jeff continued. “When we lost half of the jobs in the taconite industry over several years, most of the vendors worked hard to diversify their lines of business. That diversification is now paying off, so when the taconite industry has a tough time, they’re able to rely on other lines of business and fight through it.”
The western end of the Iron Range seems to be holding its own, and Jeff expects that if PolyMet Mining is able to navigate the environmental review process successfully in 2017, the eastern end of the Range could see a huge growth in activity. “PolyMet will really buoy that end of the Range—and the entire region—once the permitting is all in place.”
Itasca County in particular has a good mix of economic drivers: taconite, forest products and tourism. The forest products industry has been stable, and tourism in Itasca County has also benefited from a diversification in what this area offers visitors. However, even in Itasca County not all economic news is positive. Minnesota Power recently announced its intent to retire the two oldest boiler units at its Clay Boswell Energy Center by the end of 2018. That will mean a loss of 100 jobs regionally with 40 of them in Cohasset.
“We always need to pay attention to having a business climate that is attractive to prospective business developers and owners,” said Jeff, “and that starts with having a great quality of life. Northern Minnesota and Itasca County offer that for many people.”
Jeff knows; when he’s not at the bank or out visiting business owners, you can find him at the hockey rink where his 17-year old son is a member of the Hibbing High School varsity hockey team. “I’ve been known to talk business even as I’ve watched a hockey game,” Jeff added, “so our lending team is always ready to bring that hometown, community bank responsiveness everywhere we go.”