$60 Million Grant Application Sets Groundwork for Future Collaboration

In early November 2021, a coalition of 13 members throughout northeast Minnesota came together to submit a grant application for the federal Economic Development Administration’s (EDA) Build Back Better Regional Challenge (BBBRC).

Although the application did not make it into the second phase of the grant selection process, which could have brought up to $60 million in funding to the region, the effort sets the groundwork for future collaboration to develop the Northland’s digital economy ecosystem.

The Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation (IRRR) served as the lead institution for the application.  Minnesota Power and IRRR contracted with Northspan, which collaborated with the Arrowhead Regional Development Commission (ARDC) to complete the application.  

The coalition brought together 13 members in support of the application vision statement: “Northeast Minnesota seeks to develop a prosperous twenty-first century rural economy through the creation of a digital ecosystem that re-envisions regional industries and ignites innovative, equitable entrepreneurship.”  

  • Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation (IRRR) 
  • Area Partnership for Economic Expansion (APEX) 
  • Arrowhead Regional Development Commission (ARDC) 
  • Blandin Foundation 
  • Entrepreneur Fund 
  • Itasca Economic Development Corporation (IEDC), including the Innovate 218 program
  • Minnesota Power 
  • Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) 
  • Northeast Higher Education District (NHED) 
  • Northeast Service Cooperative (NESC) 
  • Northland Small Business Development Center (SBDC) 
  • Northspan Group, Inc., including the NORTHFORCE talent community program and the Welcoming Community program 
  • Range Association of Municipalities and Schools 


The application identified a framework to supercharge an existing vision in the region, with a focus on seven projects: 

  • Infrastructure for Digital Economy Access – NESC
  • Building Rehabilitation and Shovel Ready Site Work – IRRR
  • Comprehensive Knowledge Workforce Strategy – Northspan
  • Innovate 218 Facilities and Training Integration – IEDC/Innovate 218
  • Digital Economy Asset and Cluster Analysis – IRRR
  • Non-Battery Renewable Energy Storage – NRRI
  • Biomass Energy and Advanced Carbon Products – NRRI 

“These projects address both important economic development infrastructure and innovative new efforts,” said Northspan Research Director & Senior Consultant Karl Schuettler. “We’re especially proud of how this coalition pulled together to support the region.”  

In preparation for the application, the coalition led community engagement sessions in the three sub-regions of the cluster: Itasca County, the Iron Range, and the North Shore of Lake Superior. Many priorities to support a more robust digital economy, such as expanded broadband infrastructure and resources for entrepreneurs, emerged from these sessions. 

The application also drew from and built on the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) process which conducted outreach in a community engagement effort that achieved its most extensive public participation in CEDS history earlier in 2021. 

For more information, please contact Northspan Research Director & Senior Consultant Karl Schuettler at kschuettler@northspan.org