Winds of Change: Area economy waking up

Editor's note: After two years of malaise in many areas of our economy, recent events and data point to positive change. But behind the numbers, residents have varying views on the region's challenges and opportunities. Part One of this Winds of ...

Editor's note: After two years of malaise in many areas of our economy, recent events and data point to positive change. But behind the numbers, residents have varying views on the region's challenges and opportunities. Part One of this Winds of Change series on the Northland economy looks at some of our bright spots, jobs and areas of growth. This series was written with research and reporting assistance by Murphy McGinnis Newspapers throughout northeastern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin.

The economy of 2003 provided Northland residents plenty to talk about as a spring of uncertainty eventually evolved to a winter of optimism.

Promising signs began appearing in November, as 100 new Northwest Airline reservation jobs in Chisholm, and three new restaurants in Superior, Wis., were just two of the region's good news stories.

On Minnesota's Iron Range, Minntac Mine began shipping taconite to China, and the EVTAC plant reopened this month as United Taconite re-employed more than 300 workers laid-off in May. A $90 million expansion of Duluth's medical district moved toward reality, and Cloquet received a sizable grant to develop a business park.

While the health care industry had a challenging year, the region's largest player -- St. Mary's/Duluth Clinic Health System -- after early-year layoffs, came to terms with workers and closed a deal with Duluth on a downtown expansion that will create 200 new jobs. Other Northland cities are also seeing new planning and construction in health care facilities.


Health care jobs go well beyond clinical work with a variety of occupations in support services and related industries, such as long-term care. Nursing and residential care facilities and general merchandise stores were part of only a handful of northeast Minnesota industries that added jobs between 2000 and 2002. The region has 17 hospitals and 37 facilities with nursing home beds.

Some health care jobs have problems directly related to the economy.

Kristin Coenen is manager of ambulatory business services for SMDC. Her six-year tenure could be a case study in career advancement. The Superior, Wis., resident was looking for a new career path when she started at SMDC as a "temp" payment poster. Coenen advanced to night supervisor, then to day supervisor and is now a manager.

While they don't work in a clinical setting, Coenen and her staff share the job stress.

"Finance is involved directly with the patient care aspect," she said. "The tension that we feel increases as more and more patients become uninsured -- we're forced to do more with less and that's stressful."

Coenen thinks one of the big challenges facing her industry will be finding people who can fit into what is becoming an electronically-based workplace.

"There is a lot of stress, especially in long-term care," said 20-year veteran Michelle Fremling, a unit coordinator at Duluth's Benedictine Health Center. She cited high turnover, low staffing levels and the demanding nature of the job as some of its drawbacks. "It's a hard job to start with, and we're so underpaid and always have been."

Fremling is president of AFSCME Local 3558, which represents about 350 members who work at nonprofit organizations in the Duluth area. She acknowledged there are jobs available in long-term care, but emphasized it is not a career for everybody and would not recommend it to her kids.


"It's a tough job, a very physically demanding job," Fremling said. "The thing with long-term care, it's either for you or it's not. They get a lot of people who try it and don't last because it's so tough. You need a certain ability to work with people.

"It's rewarding to see it in the residents' faces, but as far as rewards from anywhere else -- no."

She does not believe many of her co-workers would buy a new car or take on additional debt. "I personally don't feel secure enough," she said. And having watched their portfolios decline, she said some of the older workers are worried about retirement funds.

Workers in different industries felt the economy, and consumer activity, heat up. Denise Johnsen, manager of Christopher & Banks, a women's clothing store in Duluth's Miller Hill Mall, noticed an upward trend in sales this fall. After a slow summer, the back-to-school season was robust for her store.

"We had lots of sales and all of a sudden, people were buying," she said in early September.

She said plenty of the dollars spent in her store are coming from out of town. "We have had a lot of travelers, from all over the country, some from Europe and some from Canada, who have been coming in and paying full price. We get a lot of people from the Twin Cities, too, who come to be on the North Shore and then they stop in here to shop."

In Wisconsin, bright economic news included reports of some logging operations becoming high-tech, and a new sound control panel factory was announced for a Prentice industrial park. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation announced railroad projects in Superior and Ashland that are expected to enhance logging and pulpwood operations.

The Wisconsin Hospital Association hailed the passage of the Medicare bill, estimating it will bring more than $400 million in extra payments to state hospitals. As with Minnesota, the state is expecting health care job growth.


Technology has also been a bright spot on both sides of the border. In Cohasset, Amcom has grown to become the 13th largest software development firm in Minnesota.

Pat Malley, general manager of Superior Broadband in Duluth, said his company has grown in the past year at a "pretty steady rate."

"We see growth as more and more people move to high speed connectivity," he said. "The big thing is that several companies are buying software that requires them to use the Internet to connect to servers that are located elsewhere in the country and dial-up just won't cut it."

In Ashland, Wis., the first Northern Great Lakes Technology Expo attracted a large crowd to view exhibits by some of the largest national and local IT companies, including IBM, Hitachi and Citrix. The vendors agreed the expo was a success. "The feedback I received was positive," said Keith Hasart, one of the organizers.

The spate of positive events in the Northland came as good news spread on the national economy when several major indicators began pointing in a positive direction.

And as the year closes, some key local figures -- especially relating to jobs -- appear to be following that trend.

Part Two of this series will look at the upswing and the forces beyond the region that drive and control our economic conditions.

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