The City of Duluth vs. Urban Blights: City Council Meeting Notes, 6/10/13

At various times on this blog, I’ve emphasized the importance of only worrying about the things one can control; that is, focusing on the most immediate issues around our lives rather than obsessing over what’s going on at the national or international level. Seeking to practice what I preach, I went to the Duluth City Council meeting last night. (I hasten to note here that care for the local need not necessarily involve formal political structures; it is simply one of many options, and a somewhat entertaining one in a city such as Duluth, which is large enough to have some “big city problems,” but small enough that there are few degrees of separation between anyone in town.) What follows is an account of the June 11, 2013 Duluth City Council Meeting.

The meeting took place in the council chamber on the third floor of city hall, a rectangular room with a spectacular view of the Duluth harbor that allows bored Councilors and writers to gaze out at the huge ships when they so choose. Attendance was limited primarily to citizens with immediate business before the council, though a local blogger who is running for the Council this fall was bouncing around the room and snapping pictures as if he already owned the place, and there were a handful of residents there to cheer the council on in its ongoing battle with a man named Jim Carlson. (I will refrain from making further comments about the blogger so as to keep my own blog from sinking to his level.)

The first item on the agenda revolved around Duluth’s biggest ongoing controversy, the sale of synthetic marijuana at a downtown head shop called the Last Place on Earth (LPOE). The city has been at war with Mr. Carlson, the shop’s owner, for years now, and the litany of complaints against LPOE grows ever longer. A representative from a local hospital described the situation as a “public health crisis,” and one councilor described the effects of the bath salts and other marijuana substitutes as “worse than cocaine.” Customers come from far and wide to purchase LPOE’s product, leading to loitering and vagrancy on the block in front of LPOE, an area of downtown that has otherwise been somewhat gentrified in recent years. The Chamber of Commerce has rallied behind the effort to thwart LPOE, citing serious losses for local businesses. Councilor Larson and Council President Boyle (who have experience in these matters) noted the added difficulties of getting marijuana substitute users back on their feet, and the widespread social consequences of drug use.

On Monday night, the Council took up a resolution that would regulate the sale of synthetic marijuana in the city of Duluth. Mr. Carlson came to share his thoughts, and took the stand rocking a green ensemble and a ragged grey beard one might expect to find on a Cuban revolutionary after several months fighting in the jungles. The image befits Mr. Carlson, a man who has pretensions of rebellion—he was on the ballot in several states in last year’s presidential election as the candidate of the Grassroots Party—but in the end seems to be in it only for himself, a man who believes that legality determines morality. Alas, Mr. Carlson lacked the charisma of a Castro or a Guevara, and limited his remarks to a few familiar points: he insisted this new measure constituted an endorsement of his business, and that the city would have to stop charging him for the extra police officers assigned to his block and return various seized assets.

The Councilors then took turns railing against Mr. Carlson and his business. Councilor Krug made it quite clear the measure was no endorsement of synthetic marijuana, but simply a stopgap bureaucratic measure to be used until state or federal law bans it. The intensity of the rhetoric varied; Councilor Fosle said his problem was with the product, not the business itself, and that he had only decided to support the measure after a National Geographic special he’d watched the night before said regulation was an effective tactic, while Councilor Julsrud said she would not rest until the business no longer exists. The lone vote against the measure came from Councilor Stauber, the longest-tenured Councilor and, as one of its more conservative members, a frequent voice in the wilderness. Councilor Stauber’s objection was, it seemed, a pertinent one: he worried that past efforts to control LPOE had simply increased Mr. Carlson’s celebrity, and that the measure might lead to even more litigation. A number of the councilors spoke past his objections as they piled on to Mr. Carlson, though Councilors Krause and Hartman argued the stakes of the problem were great enough to justify any ensuing legal battles, and Councilor Hartman said he doubted Mr. Carlson’s celebrity could grow any bigger than it already is. The measure passed, 8-1, and the Council moved on to other matters.

The second big issue on the agenda involved a pair of projects that seek to turn unused buildings into low-income housing that required Council support to qualify for grant funding. One, a repurposed Lincoln Park Middle School, was a shoo-in; the more controversial agenda item asked to council to elevate a second project at the site of the former Kozy Bar to equal status with the Lincoln Park project. The Kozy was a notorious Duluth establishment that perhaps once rivaled LPOE (just a block away) as the site most often visited by police in the city. It burned in a fire several years ago—a fire that was “quite honestly a relief,” according to Councilor Julsrud—and the shell of the Pastoret Terrace building it occupied, which was designed by a famed local architect, has been empty ever since.

Councilor Gardner, another longtime member and one of its most vigorous (and long-winded), read a letter from local historian Tony Dierckins that explained the need to save the Pastoret Terrace building, particularly since it might not be able to withstand another winter without some construction. Several Councilors noted the serious need for low income housing in Duluth, though Councilor Fosle had a rather murky counterargument to this claim involving U-Haul usage patterns.

However, as the debate unfolded, it became clear the Council had its doubts about the Pastoret Terrace project. Councilor Krause summed them up well, pointing to the very high density of the apartments coupled with poor ratio of resources (ie. food and support services) to institutions of vice in the area (LPOE, the Fon Du Luth Casino, a bar on the block) that might just lead to more of the same problems that led the Kozy to be Ground Zero for Duluth’s urban blight. Councilor Gardner countered that this is how downtown living is, and that there would be adequate support for residents who required it. The developer, a Mr. Conlan, reminded the council that these grants were not public money, asked where else “these people” were going to live if not downtown. Councilor Larson strongly objected to this language, while a representative of Mayor Don Ness’s administration offered similar sentiments, and suggested mixed-use housing would be more appropriate.

Several councilors also had serious issues with the owner of the property, Eric Ringsred, who, as Councilor Fosle reminded the chamber seven or eight times, once claimed the City Council (along with several other prominent Duluth institutions) was culpable for the suicide of Jim Grandishar, a business partner of Mr. Ringsred’s who once sought to convert a historic Duluth theater into a strip club. Councilor Fosle made it fairly clear he would not associate himself with anything involving Mr. Ringsred, despite Mr. Conlan’s best efforts to point out that his ownership stake and lack of any other involvement in the project did not render him much of an obstacle. (If Councilor Stauber is the Council’s voice in the wilderness, then Councilor Fosle is its loose cannon. A well-built man with a contemplative goatee, he displayed an incredible talent for oscillating between sharp insights and tone-deaf head-scratchers throughout the evening.)

In the end, the Council voted 6-3 against elevating the priority of the Pastoret Terrace project, with Councilors Gardner, Hartman, and Stauber providing the dissent. They then discussed the ultimate fate of the Pastoret Terrace project before ultimately deciding to table it. This vote also came down to a 6-3 margin, though Councilor Julsrud made her inner conflict quite clear; the ‘no’ votes came from Councilors Krause, Krug, and Fosle.

The only other item that inspired much debate was an amendment to a disbursement of some $80,000 in parks and rec grant funds proposed by Councilors Gardner and Krause, who suggested that money for informational kiosks along the lakefront Lakewalk path should come out of the tourism budget instead of park money. While the Councilors seemed to agree this was a sensible idea, Chief Administrative Officer Montgomery argued was more important to respect the existing vetting process, and Councilor Fosle, in one of his insightful moments, noted the danger of setting a precedent for the selective addition and subtraction of projects from omnibus funding measures. The amendment failed, 7-2.

The meeting concluded with a celebration of a new set of picnic tables in front of the library, a call to help set a new playground in Lester Park on Saturday, and plans for a City Council-School Board social at which the Councilors were told that their attendance had better be superior to that of the School Board members. And while the fate of a couple of blighted blocks in Downtown Duluth wasn’t all that much clearer, there were, at least, some signs of movement.


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