Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

EDITORIAL: Leadership at IRRRB

Gov.-elect Walz should ask Mark Phillips to continue as the agency’s commissioner

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As he begins the process of staffing his administration, Gov.-elect Tim Walz will have plenty of decisions to make. But when it comes to selecting the head of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, Walz should have it easy. Reappointing Mark Phillips is the obvious choice.

Phillips confirmed that he has applied to continue in his current role, which is great news. Phillips has 30-plus years of experience in development and finance, having worked in government as well as in the private and nonprofit sectors. Prior to his appointment as IRRRB Commissioner, Phillips served as Commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development. He’s held top positions with Minnesota Power, Kraus Anderson, and Northeast Ventures, a Duluth-based venture capital group.

Experience matters, but so does vision and an understanding of how resilient economic development really happens. Fortunately, Phillips combines all of these qualities, and that’s helped him be an effective leader at the IRRRB.

Phillips understands the connection between community and economic development, which is why he’s been willing to invest substantial funding in community projects that have the potential to make the region’s communities more desirable places to live.

Phillips recognized that the old model, of trying to lure large employers to the region, had proven ineffective time after time, and he wasn’t willing to simply continue down an unproductive path. Instead, he’s focused efforts on boosting homegrown businesses and investing in amenities like mountain biking trails, enhanced community entrances, or the Lake Vermilion Cultural Center. It’s actually the most successful and widely-used approach to economic development in the world, based on the proven idea that if you create communities where people want to be, the jobs inevitably follow. And it has the added value of enhancing the quality of life for everyone who calls our area home.

Phillips understands that economies grow best from the grassroots, and that agencies like the IRRRB can and must provide the broad-based support to help that effort along. Under Phillips, the agency has, for the first time, recognized that providing affordable childcare is a critical workforce development challenge, as well as a quality of life issue, that needs funding assistance. That’s an important shift in mission.

At the same time, under Phillips, the agency has begun to provide some funding support to the local foods movement, another sign of the agency’s progressive new vision. We have advocated for years, for example, that reinvigorating local food production, has the potential to generate new economic activity and keep more of the region’s food dollars recirculating in the area economy.

Even as he has shown a willingness to try new approaches, Phillips hasn’t lost touch with the importance of the region’s basic industries, like taconite mining and the timber industry. As a former Minnesota Power executive, he recognizes that major industries remain important employers in the region and need support as well, especially at a time when such industries are experiencing significant technological changes.

At a time when the region is increasingly divided on environmental issues, such as over the future of copper-nickel mining or the construction of new oil pipelines, Phillips is someone who can bridge that divide because he’s willing to listen. He’s earned respect from all sides for his experience and the fact that he seeks to solve problems and create opportunities, rather than push an agenda.

Among the long list of appointments that Gov.-elect Walz has on his plate, this one should be the easiest. The Walz administration couldn’t do better than to keep Mark Phillips at the helm of the IRRRB.

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