Problem: Our region is lacking a system and a structure to sustain healthy communities for the long term. The
issues our local communities are experiencing have to do with community and cultural intergenerational poverty and lack of access.
Around the turn of the 20th Century, the Finns who immigrated to our area were marginalized for cultural and political reasons. They were forced to learn how to subsist from the native people of the area or had to create their own systems to survive; systems such as the Finland Co-op which was created in order to have access to markets, a way to sell local goods and acquire goods from outside the area.
Extractive logging happened in the very early part of the 1900s and then receded to a much smaller scale. Mining was happening on the Iron Range, but it was just far enough away that the Finland area didn’t benefit financially or suffer environmentally.
For a brief time, there was a thriving local and regional economy that formed. In the 1950s, serious globalization came to Finland and changed the playing field. The taconite production plant in the nearby city of Silver Bay and the Finland Air Force Radar Station were built, and mechanization of logging and agriculture made both industries produce fewer profits for fewer people. Many people turned from making a living from the land to this new economic system. In the 1980s Reserve Mining Company shut down its Silver Bay plant and the Air Force abandoned the Radar Station, leaving a vacuum, and forcing a lot of people to leave the area. This is the story of globalization: we find ourselves many years later with a system of poverty instead of a strong local economy. Our community was globalized, and as a result, we have few jobs, high land prices, and lack of access to housing. People have to leave. Young people often have to leave, or have little hope. We lost our economic sovereignty.
Now we are positioned to see the problem and the solution. This major change was recent enough that we still have the threads of the old economic system to pick up from. Not only that, but we are uniquely situated to rebuild our local economy because our corner of Northern Minnesota has been largely ignored by industrial agriculture and by extractive industry (until recently) and remains undeveloped in many ways. Instead of challenging a large corporate structure, we are operating in a bit of a vacuum. This allows us to focus on building systems rather than fighting to be able to build them. We have a good chance for community buy-in, and we have enough structures already in place to support building our local economy using food as a starting point – as a system to create empowered community through the development of sustainable local wealth.
We have no system to rely on, so we have to build one. There is no other option. We can’t tap into a system of wealth, we have to create our own, which can serve as a replicable example for many small rural communities throughout the Midwest.
Breakthrough: We have to regain our economic sovereignty as a place and as a region. Rebuilding our local economy creates local wealth, rather than extracting it and sending it somewhere else.
Process: In order to have sovereignty, people have to have a voice. Our process allows our community to identify problems they want to solve by giving them a voice, and then creating a method to achieve their goals. That democratic process is a tradition in our community, one that we intend to honor throughout the time of this work. The story of how we built our community center is the story of this community process.
The Story of Finland’s Community Center and How Friends of the Finland Community Was Formed: In 1995, the Town of Crystal Bay (our local municipality) created a planning and zoning board so as to have some jurisdiction over platted roads. The Township also discussed a new community center/recreation building for many years. In the spring of 2003 these two efforts came together and the Township did comprehensive planning to decide where the new community center should be located, and also began to think ahead for the future of the Township.
In 2003, ten focus groups were organized with 110 participants to discuss visions of the new community center and the future of Crystal Bay Township. At the annual meeting in March 2003, the results from the focus groups were presented and a new committee for the comprehensive planning process was formed. The Comprehensive Community Planning Steering Committee grew to 16 members to better represent the diverse viewpoints in the community.
During 2003 and 2004, the Comprehensive Community Planning Steering Committee met regularly to draft a vision, goals and strategies. All of the steering committee meetings were open to the public and many were well attended (up to 50 individuals). In February 2005, the Town Board held hearings on the Comprehensive Community Plan (Comp Plan) to hear feedback from the community. They made copies of the plan available to the community and asked for written feedback as well. Many constructive comments were received and the main questions raised were about how the plan would be implemented. On March 7, 2005 the Town Board approved the Comp Plan.
The feedback received concerning the new community center was incorporated into the Comp Plan as its own section, and was the first major item put into motion. The former Finland recreation hall had fallen into disrepair and in the fall of 2007, with the help of Lake County, it was demolished. The Township’s goal was to build a new community center that would be the model rural, affordable, sustainable community center to serve area residents of Northern Lake County and visitors to the region.
Through support from the Northeast Minnesota Sustainable Development Partnership, Partners and Sirny Architecture Firm, the University of Minnesota Center for Sustainable Building Research, Federal Transportation Funds, Minnesota’s Lake Superior Coastal Program, Iron Range Resources, the Wilder Foundation, NE MN Sustainable Development Partnership, the Lloyd K. Johnson Foundation, Clean Energy Resource Teams, the Katherine B Andersen Fund of the St Paul Foundation, and many various donations from individuals and businesses. Friends of the Finland Community and Honor Schauland were instrumental in organizing the meetings and building the partnerships that led to these grants for the new facility.
The Community Center opened early in 2011.
After the Center was finished, a construction debt of $250,000 remained. Thanks to the efforts of Town Clerk Deb Johansen, and County Commissioner Pete Walsh, State Representative Dave Dill was able to secure Taconite Production Tax funds to pay off this debt.
The Community Center is now available for use and rental. It is used virtually every day for a wide variety of activities.
As a community, we created our own process to find, address, plan, and complete our goals. This was not neat and tidy. This was messy at times, and people often disagreed, argued, or offered criticism. The leaders of the project did their best to facilitate communication, address concerns, allow different viewpoints to be heard, and hold space for the community to come to a consensus in order to proceed. The process was democratic. It took a long time, and ultimately made the project and the community stronger in the long run. We may have reinvented the wheel completely, but that was the wheel that we needed to invent in order to get that done. It’s our wheel.
It was understood from the beginning that the nonprofit, Friends of Finland, formed in 2007 partly to help raise funds to build the Center, was not formed for the sole purpose of building or managing the Community Center. Friends of Finland’s mission is to help our local government implement the vision for the community that was outlined in the Comp Plan. The group works to facilitate change by holding a yearly forum for community input and ideas and also for celebrating community accomplishments. This is an Annual Community Conversation in which around forty to fifty people participate. This is one of the ways we have learned about the problems with food access that our community struggles with, and one of the places where some of the creative ideas to solve those problems have come from.
Finland Food Chain Project Process: For this project, we envision a similar format but related to food with breakout groups working on specific issues (egg production, food buying clubs, food related businesses, co-op restaurant ideas). We would start with a general discussion on where community members shop for food and how we can increase local purchasing and go from there. These community discussions will help flush out additional community members interested in participating and in turn possible develop “champions” to see them through.
Why food? While this economic system we are building can support the production of many different types of goods and services, food is a unifier. We know we can get significant community buy-in. We’ve already seen that the organic section is the fastest growing sector at the Finland Co-op. Round River Farm CSA has a long waiting list for shares. The demand for locally produced food is there. There is a lot of effort by a lot of people to produce things that people want, but our current economy doesn’t make that profitable or sustainable.
No local egg producer has a hard time selling their eggs. But those producers are operating on nonexistent margins. Our budding local chicken industry has gone as far as it can go with our current situation. These producers are held back from greater success by lack of access, both to markets and to affordable feed.
Each week, the Finland Co-op gets a delivery of fresh bread from Ashland Bakery in Wisconsin (60 miles away as the crow flies across the Lake). The bread sells out immediately. Someone could bake bread more locally, but there isn’t access to grain. It’s the same issue the chicken producers have. As an example of how things could unfold with the process and system and project we are envisioning, regionally sourced grains could be purchased in bulk and shipped to the Finland Co-op. These grains would not only be used by a local bread baker but could be available in bulk at the Co-op for its members, other local food buying clubs, local livestock producers needing feed, and the grain can be redistributed to other retail outlets along the North Shore and the Iron Range. The Clair Nelson Center’s commercial kitchen would be the location for bread production. Having an inexpensive production facility will keep the overall cost down. This has already happened in the past and the space is workable. The final product would be available for sale at the Finland Co-op, Zup’s grocery in Silver Bay, local restaurants and other retail outlets along the North Shore. In keeping with Wolf Ridge E.L.C.’s goal of locally sourced foods, all bread products used at Wolf Ridge would be produced right here in Finland. In order to be truly sustainable, this project needs to lift the economy of the whole region.
Not only can we begin to reclaim our community power, we can assist others along the shore, extending our newly designed and tested systems to the numerous and extensive North Shore market for local foods. We can fill the trucks in both directions, renewing and exchanging the ingredients and products to lift us all up together.
Where we are currently at in the process: In many ways, we already have a lot of community engagement – more than many other places. People here often participate in community. However, there are more people who need to participate and have their voices heard, especially in relation to the topics of economic sovereignty and food. Some of this work is already happening, what we need now is to increase our capacity to do more in this direction. A big part of that is cycling back to the community for more brainpower, human resources and experience. We need to open up the work happening already around food to the rest of the community to ask for their input and participation. We’ve begun to have these conversations with individuals and organizations, but a lot more work needs to be done.
Opportunities to participate: April 6th, 2019 Community Conversation about Food at the Clair Nelson Center – 5:30pm – Dinner and childcare provided. There will be many more committees and classes coming in the near future.
April 18th, 25th, and May 2nd – Finland Farming and Gardening Class Series: Soils, Garden & Farm Planning, Farm Finances & Taxes – taught by David and Lise Abazs.
Final Outcome: Ultimately our local economy is linked to the larger, outside economy. We are always going to want to engage in trade to acquire goods we cannot grow or make ourselves. However, this project will allow us to regain a great deal more local community control of the means of food production which will create local wealth and keep it circulating within our region, giving us greater independence and resilience in relation to the changing global economy.