Rust Belt resurgence

RUST BELT RESURGENCE: Aiming to be 'Superior'

2011-09-18T00:00:00Z 2012-07-16T17:45:12Z RUST BELT RESURGENCE: Aiming to be 'Superior'By Bowdeya Tweh bowdeya.tweh@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com
September 18, 2011 12:00 am  • 

DULUTH, Minn. | While people may continue to fall in love with its pretty shoreline, Mayor Don Ness believes jobs are going to keep Duluth afloat and one day lift the city's population.

Like a large vessel trying to change it course, the city is slowly moving away from heavy industry and shipping to support new opportunities in tourism, health care and light manufacturing. Many residents welcome the shift and see an opportunity to enhance support for creative enterprises.

Now comes the hard part: How can you increase job opportunities or the population in a city that hasn't seen growth in more than half a decade? Residents, business leaders and city officials say it starts with building collaborations.

"For 70 years, our community hasn't been in the mindset of growth," Ness said. "It was managing the closing of the steel plant and manufacturing."

Life in the Northland

Lake Superior, the northernmost Great Lake, has helped define Duluth as a world-class manufacturing and shipping hub. It also now serves as a primary tourism driver within northeast Minnesota and the central reason why residents say the area is beautiful.

Then there's the "(expletive) cold," said Charlie Stauduhar, owner of Spirit Lake Marina & RV Park, describing the weather in winter and other seasons.

Duluth lost less than 1 percent of its population in the past decade and had 86,265 residents, according to 2010 census figures. That figure is slightly larger than Hammond and Gary, which are Northwest Indiana's largest cities and had population declines over the same period of 3 percent and 22 percent, respectively.

More than 90 percent of Duluth's residents are white, but the city slowly is becoming more ethnically diverse and younger as a result of the rise in the number of college students in the city. The median age was 33.6 last year, down from 35.4 a decade ago.

A city that works

Duluth resident Jenna Erdmann, who moved to the city in June, said the draw of activities outdoors and the beautiful landscape are amenities that can easily be sold to other people. Although Erdmann, 23, was able to find employment in the neighborhood of West Duluth, the job market is still tight and there is a dearth of jobs for young professionals.

"It needs jobs and you've got local artisans that thrive because you've got all this working material," she said. "You want to save manufacturing jobs, but that doesn't tap into all the intellectual capacity."

Past recessions have been cruel to a number of the blue-collar jobs in Duluth as the steel plant and other manufacturing or shipping businesses closed.

"It is true that we don't yet have the number of jobs or the diversity of jobs that are going to sustain a young family and a mortgage, and that needs to be our focus," Ness said.

Duluth's unemployment rate rose to 8 percent in July, which was its highest level in 15 months, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. The state has estimated the city has gained about 500 jobs in the past year, which puts the city near a six-year peak in employment.

Purging the past

In some ways, the city still is working through the difficult times dealt in the 1980s when at one point, 20 percent of the labor force was unemployed, said Ness, a 37-year-old Duluth native.

But two community foundations and an aggressive focus on developing the lakefront spurred a change in fortunes, said Ness, a Democrat who is running for re-election unopposed. Business and philanthropic leaders in coordination with city officials made investments to forge a new vision in the city, which included developing entities such as Canal Park on the city's waterfront.

"We have this beautiful city on a lake, let's not turn our back on it," Ness said. "Let's make Duluth a place where people are proud to live."

Purging the past doesn't mean forgetting the challenges ahead, such as shrinking city budgets. Keeping that in mind, Ness said he would like to see the city's population rise to 90,000 by 2020.

Duluth News-Tribune Editor Robin Washington, a Chicago native, describes the city as "better than it thinks it is." Washington said residents sometimes suffer from an inferiority complex, but have enough community pride to defend it from barbs.

The Duluth area was the birthplace of the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co., now known as 3M; the founder of Oreck vacuum cleaning manufacturing firm; and Jeno Paulucci, the founder of a food empire that includes the Michelina's frozen food brand.

"It is significant beyond the size," Washington said.

A downtown renaissance

Kristi Stokes, president of the Greater Downtown Council of Duluth, said the city's downtown area has benefited from property owners reinvesting in their building, an increase in residents and private entities investing hospitality ventures in recent years.

A turning point in the city's central business district began nearly 10 years ago when former Mayor Gary Doty led an economic summit. Stokes said it was there that people urged the city's central area to have a "stronger pulse."

"There's no longer 'Let's ask the city for funding' because in many instances around the country, cities are cutting back on their budgets," Stokes said about the two-day summit. "There was this vision that came out of it that private sector needed to take a stronger leadership role."

Part of what spawned from it was the creation of the Duluth Downtown Waterfront District, a special taxing district that encompasses 90 city blocks including Canal Park. The district was created Jan. 1, 2005, and renewed for a second, five-year operation Jan. 1, 2010. Stokes said the assessment ranging from $250 to $8,000 a year is collected from property owners in addition to voluntary contributions from the city and private entities. She said the funds help employ informational ambassadors to provide assistance to tourists and others, clean up graffiti and litter, host community events and create promotional materials for local attractions.

"I think overall, Duluthians are very proud of their community," Stokes said. "Maybe that's why we're critical. We have a true treasure here and we're fortunate to be on Lake Superior so it's a destination for visitors and residents."

The creative movement

Tony Cuneo, executive director of the A.H. Zeppa Family Foundation, believes investing in creative enterprises can improve an area's quality of life.

The foundation is working to make a permanent contribution to Duluth's arts community and economic revitalization by operating a grant-making foundation, an arts cafe, a cinema and a performance theater. Cuneo, a Duluth City Council member, manages those enterprises.

"There has been a growing realization of how important arts and culture are to the long-term economic health of the city of Duluth," Cuneo said.

As part of the city's marketing efforts, Ness compiled a "Mayor's Mix" CD that contains bands and singers who have ties to the city of Duluth. The CD is a spinoff from a local music festival -- think Lollapalooza but smaller -- that spans Duluth and neighboring Superior, Wis., The city has spawned musicians such as Bob Dylan and folk singer and guitarist Charlie Parr, but continued growth can help enhance the creative class, Ness said.

Challenges, opportunities remain in neighborhoods

Community groups and residents said they remain focused on tackling issues related to blight and crime, although they don't have the levels of both that cities such as Gary face. Nearly 21 percent of housing units are vacant in Gary, compared to nearly 7 percent in Duluth, according to 2010 census figures.

Pam Kramer, executive director of the Duluth Local Initiatives Support Corp., or Duluth LISC, said one strategy that helped manage problems was identifying revitalization strategies in five key neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates and that

needed upgrades to their housing stock. Support for the effort was drawn from the "At Home in Duluth" campaign, which sought to bring community groups and residents together to develop visions for those neighborhoods. She said in the four years since those neighborhoods were selected, federal dollars and other investments have helped eliminate blighted properties, build affordable housing and improve community aesthetics.

Proof that collaboration is happening can be seen as two neighborhoods with unique identities but similar names – Central Hillside and East Hillside – have banded together to become the Hillside neighborhoods, Kramer said.

"There's no perfect system, there's going to be some disputes, some turf (issues)," said Kramer, a former city planner and community development director. "In this size community, everyone has recognized you can get a lot more done working together and using each other's strengths."

The foreclosure rate in the Duluth metro area rose about 29 percent in 2010 from a year earlier, which is far higher than the national average of 2 percent.

Kramer said Duluth LISC is working with the mayor's task force on managing foreclosures and is researching whether the city or metro area should have a land bank to deal with vacant land and blighted properties.

To stem the tide on housing issues, the city's job picture has to improve.

"It's an absolutely beautiful city," Erdmann said. "It's safe and I could see myself raising a family here if I was able to find a decent paying full-time job. It doesn't have all the long-term opportunities."

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