DULUTH - Mark Phillips, the recently retired head of the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation who spent decades working to bolster the region's economy, always staying mindful of his Iron Range roots, died Wednesday. He was 73.
Remembered for being a visionary and a "true Iron Ranger," Phillips leaves long-lasting benefits to northeastern Minnesota, from laying the foundation for an expansive ATV trail system to privatizing the management of the IRRR-owned Giants Ridge ski and golf resort, said former state Sen. Tom Bakk, who served on the IRRR Board for 28 years.
"He could always find a win-win situation," Bakk said. "It's a big loss for the region."
Phillips died of cancer at his home on Lake Vermilion in Tower. He graduated from Eveleth Senior High School in 1968, then studied business administration at Gustavus Adolphus College before earning his degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1973.
He had a career that varied between public and private sector — with the bulk of his early years at Minnesota Power, which he left in 1999 as director of corporate communications. He hired Nancy Norr, at the time a young analyst who counted him as a lifelong mentor and friend. She remembered him as a storyteller who was so expressive with his hands — even in the car. He had to drive with his thighs as he talked.
She used him as a model of how to conduct her own work.
"He was the person who taught me the value of relationships," she said. "There is no one who was better at creating, nurturing and sustaining professional and personal relationships for all those decades."
Phillips was commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development for just more than a year and a half, before he spent eight years as commissioner of the IRRR. These experiences, Norr said, made him the consummate economic development practitioner.
"Never was he complacent in addressing the challenges our region faced," she said. "He was the most creative and action-oriented leader we could ask for."
The IRRR and its advisory board of legislators assist both public works projects and private businesses in northeastern Minnesota using proceeds from taconite production taxes, which are paid by mining companies in lieu of property taxes.
His recommendation to hire a private company to manage Giants Ridge, which for years had lost money, likely ensured its longevity, Bakk said.
Before Phillips retired in 2023, he was optimistic about the economic future of the Iron Range.
"We have a desirable place to live," he told the Star Tribune at the time. "That's one of my theories of economic development — any area that rises their quality of life where people want to live there, they usually figure out how to find employment or start a business."
Gov. Tim Walz called Phillips "an incredible advocate for the Iron Range and the entire state."
"He dedicated his career to lifting up communities across the Range, and his work to support families and students will leave a legacy for generations," Walz said in a statement.
IRRR Commissioner Ida Rukavina said that throughout his economic development career, Phillips worked to improve the quality of life for visitors and residents in northeastern Minnesota.
"His legacy will live on through his leadership in child care, broadband access, downtown revitalization, education and outdoor recreation," she said in a statement.
Phillips made it his mission to focus the department's efforts on high-paying jobs — though his support for logging and mineral extraction may have ruffled environmental activists.
Aaron Brown, an Iron Range writer and teacher at Minnesota North College-Hibbing, remembered Phillips as a political figure with roots in the late 1970s and early 1980s alongside the Perpich brothers — Rudy, Tony and George.
"He was part of this Iron Range political tradition that is starting to fade from memory," Brown said. "There is a symbolic loss there as well."
Phillips is survived by his wife, Patty, children Jessica and Joe and two grandsons.