On a bright January morning in northeastern Minnesota, Tom Clarke is standing in untrammeled snow on the rim of a vast pit ringed by birch and aspen. He’s wearing black dress shoes, gray slacks, a navy parka, and a tan from a vacation in Aruba. At his side, in red Adidas sneakers, is a British investment banker based in Dubai. They’re here because the hole they’re gazing at holds some of the richest iron ore deposits in North America. It hasn’t been mined, however, for more than 30 years, which is a grievous source of frustration to the people of Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. Clarke has come here to remedy that.
“I see opportunity,” he says, waving a gloved hand at the pit. “Not just capitalist opportunity, but opportunity for the community, for the country.” His vision extends to the landscape beyond the hole, a mining ghost town of unfinished buildings and piles of steel beams left by the property’s previous owner, Indian energy conglomerate Essar Global Fund Ltd. Clarke plucked the operations out of bankruptcy last year. He intends to build the rare U.S. mine that not only excavates ore but also processes it into steelmaking ingredients.