Gov. Mark Dayton today announced DFL state Rep. Tony Sertich as his choice to head the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.
The agency has a prominent economic development role in a chronically struggling region -- an area that, as a DFL stronghold, was also key to Dayton's election.
Sertich is from the Iron Range city of Chisholm and has served in the Minnesota House for 10 years, most recently holding the position of House majority leader. He took office on one of the Iron Range's darker days -- the day taconite mining company LTV Steel of Hoyt Lakes closed for good.
"When LTV shut down on my first day in office a decade ago, I knew my mission was to help our economy," he said. "And I've tried to do that as a legislator. But when this opportunity arose, I looked at it as a challenge for the future of northern Minnesota."
Sertich said times remain tough on the Iron Range with too many people unemployed or working in jobs that don't pay enough to support a family. Unemployment is at 8.2 percent in Northeastern Minnesota, more than a percentage point above the statewide average.
Sertich takes over an agency whose projects to improve the region's economy must be approved by a board of citizens and lawmakers: the IRRRB.
The agency receives a production tax on taconite the mining companies pay instead of property taxes. The IRRRB uses the money to support iron mining projects, to help develop new jobs and industries, and to bankroll Iron Range infrastructure like water and sewer systems.
That mix of projects is often a focus of criticism from those who want more job creation, or from schools and communities needing to replace aging equipment. Sertich said good infrastructure also supports jobs.
"What businesses need, what our economy needs are healthy communities," he said. "That starts with a good education, but it also means we have great infrastructure in our communities, and also a good business climate."
Sertich hinted that when it comes to job production, he might look closer to home, rather than trying to score the big hit by landing a new industry.
"We can try to find a company that will relocate from another part of the state or world for 100 jobs, but if we help out 50 local businesses hire 5 people each, we're going to have a better impact for our communities," he said.
Sertich gets a warm reception on the Range. He's a fourth generation Iron Ranger, and serves as business manager of the family ambulance business, Longyear, Inc.
Craig Pagel, president of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota, which represents the taconite mines, said he has worked well with Sertich at the Legislature.
"He's a real stand-up guy. I really enjoy working with him, and he does know our industry which I think is really important in the position that he's going to be taking over," Pagel said.
Virginia Mayor Steve Peterson says the area is fortunate to get Sertich at the IRRRB helm. Despite the city's many needs, he's hoping the incoming commissioner focuses primarily on jobs.
"One of the things that I'm hoping for, and I know that my colleagues and councilors are hoping for, is that the agency does focus a little more on job growth, job creation and retention," he said. "That, you know, adheres to the message that the governor has expressed throughout his campaign: it's about jobs, jobs, jobs."
Meanwhile, past agency spending has at times irritated the environmental community, including a $4 million loan approved last month to potential copper-nickel mining company PolyMet.
Bob Tammen of Soudan said he hopes Sertich brings more openness to an agency that largely works behind closed doors.
"It appears that they deliberately set the size of their committees small enough so that they wouldn't have a quorum and be subject to the open meeting law," he said. "I wouldn't ask that he eliminate these committees. I'd ask that they be publicized -- that they be opened up to the public."
Sertich said he will resign his House seat Thursday, after offering the House a farewell address. Gov. Dayton will call a special election for the House 5B seat, to be held Feb. 15.