Grand Rapids, MINN – In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, local leaders throughout Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region (Aitkin, Cook, Carlton, Itasca, Koochiching, Lake and St. Louis Counties) came together to assess their communities’ strengths and challenges in building and sustaining broadband-powered economies. Based on what they learned, seven projects emerged and will be supported through regional grants.
“Arrowhead Regional leaders had the courage and tenacity to dedicate time during a pandemic to look deeply at how broadband was propelling or, because of the lack of it, preventing community growth,” said Tuleah Palmer, president and CEO at Blandin Foundation. “These small grants will kindle the real power of this initiative – the collaborative, innovative spirit living within our rural communities.”
Arrowhead Intelligent Region (AIR) initiative brings together Northeast Minnesota leaders to identify and fund projects that improve broadband infrastructure, build a knowledge workforce, incent innovation, ensure digital equity, foster commitment to environmental sustainability, and enable community engagement. It is a project facilitated by Blandin Foundation and Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation Board, with additional support from the Northland Foundation.
“Our agency is committed to supporting high speed reliable broadband in every acre and corner of northeastern Minnesota,” said Commissioner Mark Phillips, Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation. “Fast, reliable and affordable broadband access in northeastern Minnesota is an economic and public safety necessity, not a luxury. Our health care systems, families, workers, businesses and senior citizens are using it like never before, especially during the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
With an $8,000 grant, St. Louis County School District 2142 will map students’ homes within the St. Louis County School District (including Nett Lake, NorthWoods, Tower, Babbitt, Cherry and SouthRidge) to determine existing broadband speeds and plan for a wireless broadband network to encompass the 3,850 square miles of the district. Leading the project, Range Association of Municipalities and Schools (RAMS) is working in partnership with the Northeast Service Cooperative on a proposed wireless network build off their middle mile fiber network that runs throughout the service area. Ultimately, the project hopes to serve many of the district’s 2,200 students at the lowest possible cost.
Iron Range Tourism Bureau will develop a co-working space and expand their outreach and recruitment of remote workers. This project builds on their Hello Iron Range initiative, a talent attraction initiative that promotes the region’s workforce opportunities and connects incoming and existing residents to local networking events and resources.
Minnesota’s Children’s Press will create a new youth-, knowledge- and tech-driven genre of literature with help from a $35,000 grant. Through this project, youth will collect and map locations of litter in Grand Marais and on the shores of Lake Superior using ArcGIS Mapping software. Following data analysis, youth will write, illustrate, and publish a book about their findings and solutions. An outreach campaign will focus on both the findings of the project as well as the process and it will include presentations to local leaders, workshop offerings, a website housing free civic digital journalism resources and a social media series.
Smart North will plan for and implement a pilot project for smart streetlights and mobility hubs in the City of Grand Rapids through the support of a $50,000 grant. This infrastructure will allow city departments to access and share data, enable robust 5G connectivity throughout the city and provide municipal WiFi access. In partnership with The Grand Iron Range CAV Initiative, this effort will support the test of the country’s first autonomous shuttle vehicle in a rural, all-season community.
Northspan seeks to strengthen equitable digital access across the Arrowhead region through their Welcoming Community initiative with the support of a $50,000 grant. Through this project, Northspan will gather regional broadband data to create a baseline for fair, equal access to broadband and technology and explore how it impacts people of various race/ethnicities, income, education and ages within the Arrowhead region. This data will inform a series of conversations and engagements on why digital equity gaps exist and inform programming to address gaps.
“Every AIR project is an example of collaborative local leadership that will strengthen our rural communities over the long haul,” said Palmer. “This is just the beginning for the Arrowhead Region’s future-forward vision for a digital economy and we’re proud to partner with them as they ready themselves for additional private and public investments.”
A second round of AIR funding will open late summer 2021. For a full list of AIR grantees and more on the AIR initiative, visit https://blandin-staging.bicycletheory.net/programs/broadband/arrowhead-intelligent-region/.
AIR is the third broadband-focused partnership between Blandin Foundation and Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation. From 2017 to 2020, two cohorts of Iron Range communities worked through a proven process to define technology goals, measure current levels of broadband access and use and develop projects to meet their goals through the Blandin Broadband Communities Program.