The Iron Range – Every year, Doug Ellis sells hundreds of pairs of expensive steel-toed boots to miners, and a lot of hunting rifles.
“My business is built on mining money,” said Ellis, who owns the Virginia Surplus sporting goods store. “It’s what drives all these towns.” Ellis has operated the store in Virginia for 25 years, through three downturns in the mining industry.
People on the Iron Range are used to the booms and busts of the cyclical mining industry. But the latest downturn has Ellis and many others worried. They’re bracing for the impending layoffs of 1,100 mineworkers later this spring. The job losses likely will significantly affect a regional economy that relies heavily on mining.
The loss of 1,100 jobs on the Iron Range might not seem like much compared to the 3,100 jobs that Target eliminated in the Twin Cities last month.
But in a region where mining makes up about 30 percent of the economy, the impact of the layoffs is enormous, said John Arbogast, vice president of the United Steelworkers union Local 1938 at Minntac in Mountain Iron. “On the Iron Range, mining is everything,” Arbogast said.
U.S. Steel has announced that it will lay off 700 employees from Minntac, the largest taconite producer in the state. About 400 workers at its Keetac mine in Keewatin also will lose their jobs.
That’s nearly one fourth of the 4,500 mining jobs on the Iron Range — jobs that on average pay more than $80,000, according to officials with the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.
“This isn’t the Twin Cities. This is all we have, and they’re good paying jobs,” Arbogast said. “And these are hard-working people. They love living here. They love the fishing, the hunting — everything that comes with living on the Iron Range.”
The miners aren’t the only ones affected by the job cuts. A 2012 University of Minnesota Duluth study commissioned by the state and industry groups estimated that every mining job on the Range creates nearly two spinoff jobs.
That includes jobs at companies that service and supply the mining industry directly, as well as many in the region’s restaurants, gas stations and retail stores.
Virginia is one of the largest of the nearly 20 small towns that line the Iron Range, second only to Hibbing. But the population of both has dropped by more than four percent since 2000.
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