HOYT LAKES, MINN. – When Donald Trump became president and promised an extraordinary economic resurgence for Minnesota’s Iron Range, this small town of 2,000 seemed poised for a renaissance.
But four years later, Hoyt Lakes is more or less the same. The northeastern Minnesota city that’s home to the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine hasn’t gained or lost many jobs since Trump took office. Unemployment remains higher than the state average, while median household income is much lower than in other parts of Minnesota.
Presidential candidates thrust the Iron Range into the national spotlight this election cycle, claiming credit for its recent successes and blaming others for its struggles. Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to hold a rally Monday in Hibbing, a hub of the region that’s become a microcosm of the partisan battle over the country’s blue-collar voters who helped secure Trump’s victory in 2016 after years of supporting Democrats.
The Range got its name from the iron deposits that lie north and west of Duluth. A century of mining and two World Wars depleted the higher-quality iron ore, prompting a switch to taconite, a lower-grade form of the natural resource that is processed and used to make steel.
The president has repeatedly declared he helped the Iron Range come “roaring back” by resurrecting “thousands of jobs” in Minnesota’s mining industry after he imposed tariffs on imported steel. But many communities, like Hoyt Lakes, are still waiting to see major economic impacts from his policies.
“I haven’t seen any change,” said Kris Hawkings, a cook at the city’s Haven Bar and Grill.
Employment data from the state show that as of this year’s first quarter, northeastern Minnesota was up 325 mining jobs from the first quarter of 2017, when Trump’s term began. Those additions built on the nearly 700 mining jobs the region gained during the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency, the start of a recovery from shutdowns that devastated the industry beginning in 2015.
The mines idled then, in large part due to foreign countries dumping underpriced steel in the United States. Hundreds of layoffs in the mines had devastating ripple effects on Iron Range city halls and Main Streets.
“The Obama administration absolutely helped start that recovery,” said Kelsey Johnson, president of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota. “ … But I think we’ve had more stability in the last four years than in earlier times, and that’s in large part due to the emphasis on trade that was put forward by this administration.”
Trump campaign signs pepper front lawns because many folks agree. During Trump’s presidency, at least before the pandemic brought new hardships, some locals said they noticed signs of promise — the house down the street got a new roof, neighboring Aurora is opening a new grocery store.
Others said that while perhaps not much has changed during Trump’s tenure, they’re placing their bets on his re-election with the community’s future in mind.
A University of Minnesota Duluth study published in June said nonferrous mining companies — including PolyMet’s copper-nickel mine — told researchers they expect to bring close to 600 new jobs to the region by 2024. Officials of existing iron mines said they don’t anticipate adding positions during that time, meaning the industry’s job growth prospects are tied to the fate of projects like PolyMet, which has been mired in regulatory processes and the courts for years.
“I think there’s no question which person in the White House will help PolyMet and which one won’t,” said Chris Vreeland, mayor of Hoyt Lakes. “I’m trying to help my city. We need a mine.”
‘Fighting for our lives’
The neighbor kids’ squeals and shouts used to wake Mark Skelton early on Saturday mornings, but his block in Hoyt Lakes has been quiet for years.
Hoyt Lakes was incorporated in 1955 as a company town for Erie Mining. For almost a decade, only mine employees and their families could settle here.
When Skelton settled in Hoyt Lakes in 1976, more than 3,500 people lived in town. The taconite mine was eventually purchased by LTV Steel and continued to serve as the city’s economic hub for many years — until 2001, when it closed.
“All of a sudden, we were a mining town without a mine,” said Skelton, who served as the city’s mayor from 2012 to 2018.
About 1,400 miners lost their jobs, and many had to move elsewhere for work. Hoyt Lakes never recovered.
Across the Range, communities grappled with how to survive when their economic pillar was a fraction of what it was in its late 20th-century heyday.
Skelton remembers when, during a 2004 campaign visit to Minnesota, then-President George W. Bush gave a shoutout to “the Iron Ridge.”
“It was like we were fighting for our lives,” he said. “And I don’t think anyone in national politics knew where the Iron Range was.”
That changed when Obama’s chief of staff, and Stillwater native, Denis McDonough visited the region in 2015 to hear from laid-off miners. Skelton credits former Democratic U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan for putting his city on the radar of national politicians, though he thinks Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber has done a good job of continuing to amplify the region’s voices. Northern Minnesota has already seen six visits from presidential candidates and their surrogates this year; Pence’s Monday trip to Hibbing will make seven.
That hasn’t helped the former mayor make up his mind. Skelton didn’t vote for either major-party candidate in the 2016 presidential race, and he doesn’t know who he’ll vote for this year. He doesn’t like Trump, but he worries what a Joe Biden presidency could mean for Hoyt Lakes.
“I can’t support people who don’t support us,” Skelton said.
The blame game
John Sweeney, who’s owned a bowling alley and bar in Hoyt Lakes since 2011, said his business was bustling back in March before the pandemic.
“I was set to have one of my best months ever,” he said. “Then the governor shut down everything.”
Many in Hoyt Lakes conflate their frustrations about the state DFL with the national Democratic Party. They criticize the state party for its pandemic response and for passing a resolution that calls for a moratorium on copper-nickel mining until it’s clear it can be done without environmental costs.
Trump has boasted about opening northern Minnesota to the mining of minerals and metals. The Biden campaign has not responded to repeated requests about the issue, likely tied to the fact that an answer could drive a wedge between the environmental and labor wings of the Democratic Party.
However, Reuters reported last week that Biden privately told mining companies, including PolyMet parent Glencore, that he would support the domestic production of metals like copper and nickel to build the infrastructure detailed in his climate plan.
The former vice president has gone after Trump for his response to the pandemic, claiming Trump could have mitigated job losses on the Iron Range had he handled it differently. According to state employment data, northeastern Minnesota lost 775 jobs between the first and second quarters of 2020.
But Trump has fired back, saying the Iron Range would be suffering much more without his tariffs. The Biden campaign said the former vice president would keep those tariffs while reviewing how to best negotiate a trade strategy that halts other countries’ abilities to undercut U.S. workers.
Johnson said if Biden stays true to that stance, the candidates could be closer on mining issues than it seems. If that’s the case, what does it mean for Iron Range voters?
The region’s population is older than in other parts of Minnesota and generally more averse to economic and cultural change. Vreeland bristled at the frequent refrain urging the Iron Range to diversify.
“You don’t think we’ve tried?” he said, adding that geography and broadband access are just two factors complicating the ability of cities like Hoyt Lakes to attract new industries.
Other locals described a need for fewer pandemic restrictions and criticized the riots and calls to defund the police that happened in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Many reminisced about the days when they said the parties didn’t seem so polarized.
“We’re getting all this attention now,” Skelton said. “But I still feel like I have nobody. I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do on Election Day.”