The Polymet mine debate again has raised the frequent question: Which is more important, jobs or the environment? A forum took place in a crowded theater at Teatro Zuccone on Saturday, March 4 to change the question: Why can't we have jobs and a clean environment?
The panel featured Minnesota Sen. Erik Simonson (DFL-Duluth), Virginia City Councilor Nevada Littlewolf, Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) executive director Rolf Weberg and Jodi Slick, CEO of Ecolibrium3, a Duluth nonprofit that focuses on energy issues. Duluth City Council President Joel Sipress served as moderator.
Sipress opened by saying, "Northeastern Minnesota has historically been a resource-based extractive economy that is struggling, and has struggled for many decades with long-term economic decline. And so when a private company comes along and says, 'We want to invest millions of dollars to build a facility and to create X number of jobs,' that's really enticing.
"There are things we can do to build a regional economy that is sustainable, that is eco-friendly, and yet at the same time provides for the economic needs of the people of this region. But when we offer that vision we're basically offering plans and strategies and visions against a promise that we have the money to invest tomorrow in employment. And again, in a region where people struggle economically, that can be a hard sell, the tangible reality that 'we've got millions of dollars to invest in this facility' versus 'we've got great ideas about building an eco-friendly sustainable regional economy.' And the reason I share this is not to make us despair, but to kind of point to the challenge we have."
Simonson spoke of the Job Creation Fund, which provides grants to help existing businesses expand. But the grants haven't been going to Northeastern Minnesota, because "perhaps not enough things are happening in this region that match up with those parameters." The Legislature needs to create programs with fit with the various regions, he said. He also brought up the Angel Tax Credit program, which provides tax credits for investment in small businesses. From 2010 to 2015 there were 263 businesses invested in in Hennepin and Ramsey counties but only four in St. Louis and Lake counties.
On the plus side, he noted, the Small Business Development Center in Tech Village has been extremely helpful to local businesses, he said. He also supports development decisions being made at the local level. "I want to get the feedback about what the state can do to help you facilitate the development," he said.
Littlewolf said that contrary to the stereotype about Iron Rangers, many of them are enthusiastic about sustainability. She spoke of the restoration of Olcott Park Greenhouse, the Rutabaga Project to grow local food, the farmer's market, the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability, the annual Earth Fest (April 22) and urban revitalization by turning vacant lots into community gardens.
Littlewolf noted how people driving into Virginia from Duluth come over the hill and see all the mines, but also the windmills. "This is the world we live in," she said.
Jodi Slick said, "Talking about green jobs, where we don't have to have that argument about jobs versus the economy, is not necessarily a new conversation." Nine years ago in Duluth there was a widespread planning effort to look at the issue and resulted in an "amazing amount of work."
The city's coal-fired steam plant is literally feet from Lake Superior, but it can be retro-fitted to change fuel source and be more far efficient, reusing hot water rather than dumping it into the sewer. Conversion would be a job-creating project; the city is trying to get funding from the State Legislature and Slick hopes it will launch next year.
NRRI, located in the monolithic former Air Force defense building in Hermantown, was created by the Legislature in 1983 after the mining industry began struggling. NRRI's mission is to "develop sustainable, natural resource-based industries." Weberg spoke of NRRI's many projects helping businesses with research and development, such biomass and the use of recycled materials.
The forum was sponsored by the group Duluth for Clean Water. A video of the forum may be found at duluthforcleanwater.org.