Don Ness Goes West

I took a break from packing for the State Tourney to watch Duluth Mayor Don Ness’s State of the City address tonight. It was vintage Mayor Ness: upbeat, ambitious, and optimistic about Duluth’s future. Indeed, Ness has good reason to be optimistic; he began by listing off some of the city’s big wins over the past year, from record-low unemployment to the demise of the Last Place on Earth, and said the city is “showing signs of population growth that Duluth has not seen in sixty years.” It would be good to know more about that, but it’s an encouraging sign.

Next, it was on to a few broad challenges facing the city. One is the housing stock, which is already old and strained, and will need to grow if the city does indeed grow. Ness established a few goals and celebrated last month’s housing summit among community leaders, which was a decent start toward addressing a real issue. He also spent some time talking about income inequality, to which possible solutions included “engaging labor,” primarily in the building trades; granting equal access to communities of color; and making sure schools and colleges are teaching the skills students need. There isn’t really anything concrete in among these buzzwords, though there is only so much a local government can do on these fronts.

The bulk of the speech, though, focused on a vision for Duluth’s western end, and the St. Louis River corridor in particular. As Duluthians have learned over the past few days, the St. Louis River is the “world’s largest freshwater estuary,” and the string of neighborhoods dotting the riverbank—many of them separate enough from their neighbors to feel like their own small towns—do indeed have potential if the city “taps into its authentic strengths.” Ness noted the ongoing environmental restoration efforts along the river, and said they went hand-in-hand with economic development. He wrapped up the pitch with four legislative goals: the Spirit Mountain water project, further flood relief for the zoo and Irving Park, the re-implementation of a recently expired tourism tax, and housing incentives. He concluded by saying 2014 was the start of a “virtuous cycle” for the city, and said that “all we have to do is accelerate.”

The most striking thing about the Ness plan is its comprehensiveness. There are any number of ways a city like Duluth might try to improve its economy. It could try to follow the “creative class” theory and attract interesting people who will develop a rich cultural scene. It could focus on Duluth’s historic strengths, manufacturing and transportation, and try to create blue-collar jobs. Or it could embrace the post-industrial service economy and train most of its efforts on tourism, perhaps with some health care thrown in as well. In Ness’s Duluth, the choice is “all the above.” That’s an impressive commitment, and ultimately probably the right one, though the city does need to make sure it doesn’t spread itself too thin and wind up with a lot of some things but no critical mass in anything.

It’s also an incredibly ambitious plan on many levels. First off, Ness does deserve credit for going out there and pitching such a big plan; as I’ve observed before, the west side is not his political base. He doesn’t need to do this. Aside from flood reconstruction and city-wide projects like the expansion of trails, it’s hard to think of any development large development projects on the west side in recent years; most of the attention has been focused downtown, up in the Duluth Heights area, and in a few pockets on the east side such as the BlueStone Lofts. This is a leap into new territory; one he truly believes is the next step in bringing this city toward whatever destiny it has in mind.

It also makes complete sense intuitively. As someone who’s spent some time wandering the western neighborhoods, I agree there is clear untapped potential: natural beauty, empty space left over by dying industry, tight-knit neighborhoods, and a somewhat tired feel that could use some updating. Further neglect will only deepen divides between east and west, and it’s important to act while the west side’s civic pride remains strong.

With great opportunity, however, comes the great possibility of screwing things up. There will be competing visions going forward, and the people who don’t get what they want will have to be placated somehow. Economic and environmental incentives may align for now, but there’s no guarantee that will last. The end result isn’t going to look like the west side of forty years ago, even if there is a decent manufacturing base out there. Community input is essential; this can’t just be something the (mostly east side-based) city administration imposes on the west side. Ness’s nod toward “authentic strengths” is a step in this direction, but people have different perceptions of authenticity, and for many, it involves keeping things the way they are. This is going to cost money—probably a lot of money—and if people don’t jump on the incentives the Administration thinks they will jump on, it will be a financial sinkhole.

On that front, the biggest battle is probably going to be one of perception. For many who don’t live out that way, there’s no real animus the west side; people just don’t feel the need to go there. It used to be big manufacturing area, but not anymore, except for that smelly paper mill; it seems long and spread out and no one can remember the neighborhoods; the schools’ test scores and such are lower than the east side or Hermantown. It’s just there, without any real draws aside from a few trails and a small-city zoo. It has to fight the perception that it’s a part of the city that history has left behind.

That’s a very unfair generalization, of course; there are plenty of bright spots out west, and plenty of people who are fighting for it. (The late Charlie Bell immediately jumps to mind.) There are also plenty of residents who don’t care at all about grandiose things like arcs of history, and simply want to get on with their lives; that could be good or bad for the redevelopment plans, depending on how they’re presented. The point here is that perception moves slowly. It isn’t going to shift with more trails or a co-op or a niche manufacturer. It’s a long process, one that will long outlive the Ness Administration. It can work (witness Canal Park), but it’s no guarantee.

I could blather on for a spell with more questions (for example, why does the credits music sound like it’s from India?), but I’ll stop myself. I don’t have a definitive take on Ness’s vision for the west side, perhaps because I can swim in both seas. My inner developer loves it all, and wants to start drawing up plans on a map while dreaming of the future. Another part of my brain orders me not to be so presumptuous as to say I know what should be done with the side of the city I don’t know well, that history should take its course. Duluth needed a Ness at this point in its history to get it to think past the post-industrial mire it’s been in for my entire life; it will also need its critics acting in good faith, though, or else it will end up with another half-baked, expensive mess that creates more problems than it solves. The vision must remain comprehensive at all steps, and not just pay lip service to certain areas.

I hope Ness is right; I hope this is the start of a new virtuous cycle for Duluth. I also hope it is a patient one. There’s a lot of work to done before we go barreling ahead, but if we do it right, it might just work out in the end.


3 thoughts on “Don Ness Goes West

  1. I must say that Ness’s SOTC left me disappointed. I went into the speech/video knowing that the Mayor would focus on redevelopment of the riverfront and western neighborhoods…and I walked away knowing almost nothing more. Other than loose talk about private/public partnerships and a whole lot of use of the word “proactively”, I didn’t hear any specific plans. What would he like to do in Riverside? What’s about Smithville? Or Morgan Park? The closest we came to any sort of specific action was a list of four items that he wanted to be done at the state legislature…but he failed to talk about specific things the CITY would do to redevelop housing, connect neighborhoods, or recruit businesses. It seems like at the least he could have articulated some things that a reinstated tourism tax could do for West Duluth.
    I’m a big supporter of Ness, and as a resident of West Duluth I’m a big supporter of his goals…but review is that Mayor Ness laid out a nice vision but didn’t articulate any sort of plan.

    • I agree…there really was nothing about what the city itself would do in there. I think Ness is trying to be cautious so that it doesn’t look like he’s imposing his vision on the west side, but at the same time he is the one leading this charge, and I’m not sure it makes any sense to pretend otherwise. Hopefully something concrete comes out in the near future; otherwise, I’m not sure how he’s going to generate the momentum he’ll need to get things done.

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