Setting the Table: Duluth City Council Notes, 7/14/14

14 Jul

Not much happened at City Hall on Monday night, as the meeting had the feel of a transition from one set of big issues to another. We’re done with street fees and voting methods for the time being, while the drama surrounding the attempted recall of Councilor Gardner will unfold beyond the Council Chamber. Councilors Julsrud and Fosle were absent, leaving just seven people behind the dais. (Councilor Hanson made sure to convey the Council’s support to Councilor Fosle, whose granddaughter is undergoing surgery in the Cities.) The short and sweet meeting did, however, set the stage for several future debates that should be a bit more contentious.

First up was a public hearing on the extension of the Downtown Waterfront Special Service District. This an arrangement by which downtown businesses pay an extra tax to support the safety and beautification of the city center, an aim most notably achieved by the Clean and Safe Team, whose vivid shirts blind potential evildoers. Public hearings normally involve the Council President gaveling them into a session before promptly gaveling them closed, but tonight, the hearing was the most interesting part of the meeting, such as it was. Two speakers, Ms. Barbara Perrella of Labovitz Enterprises (whose holdings include the downtown Holiday Inn) and Ms. Kristi Stokes of the Greater Downtown Council, spoke in favor. They said the benefits of the program justified the cost and celebrated the successful public-private partnership. Mr. Craig Guzzo of Duluth Plumbing Supplies had some qualified concerns, however, including the length of time used to determine the tax, worries about duplication of duties with such organizations as Visit Duluth and the Chamber of Commerce, and the apparent lack of representation for Michigan Street businesses on the advisory council.

Councilors Gardner, Larson, and Krug all acknowledged Mr. Guzzo’s worries when the related resolutions and ordinance came up. They all said that there would be a serious effort to avoid duplication, and Councilor Gardner promised to look into the representation question. Councilor Larson said that over 75 percent of downtown businesses had expressed support for the Service District, a level of support well above the necessary threshold for renewal. The resolutions and ordinance all passed unanimously, with Councilor Gardner channeling her inner Jim Stauber by “recommending approval” on all of them.

Duluth received an award at the start of the meeting, as Mr. Paul Austin of Conservation Minnesota gave the Council a nice chunk of glass commemorating its status as a Legacy Destination for its use of public money to support conservation and the arts everywhere, from the St. Louis River corridor to the Miller Creek trout stream to restoring moose habitat. The two citizen speakers were all familiar faces as well, with Mr. Phil Fournier of AFSCME Local 66 back to complain about the city’s alleged refusal to discuss grievances and avoid arbitration. He complained that these things used to be settled in-house, and said he had polled many city employees who had similar concerns but feared retaliation of if they were to speak out. The Council then tabled a whole bunch of things, with reasons including the need for a Committee of the Whole, an attempt to align resolutions with ordinances, and a request from the absent Councilor Julsrud.

The only other measure to generate any real discussion was a lane change on College Street, which removes a lane in each direction so as to calm traffic and create a bike lane and more parking. This wasn’t controversial, but Councilor Sipress introduced an amendment to temporarily scrap a plan to include “bike boxes” at the intersections with Kenwood and 19th Ave. East. While supportive of biking, Councilor Sipress said that the Council should investigate the need for the boxes—areas in front of traffic at stoplights in which bicycles can wait before making safer left turns—before imposing them, as they prevent motorists from turning right on red. Councilor Larson and CAO Montgomery both got on board with amendment, saying there were many possible options to make biking easier, and there was no need to rush into the boxes when they could be painted on at a later date without any trouble. The amendment and resolution both went through unanimously, and the city will monitor bike usage on College Street.

Councilor Filipovich pulled a couple of infrastructure projects from the consent agenda so as to give them some love—yes, we really are fixing bad roads!—and Councilor Hanson was upbeat about the purchase of some railway land near Wade Stadium, which he figured would open up the area to possible future development. The site of the formal Central High School was also re-zoned, a move that will hopefully help the school district sell it. With that, the Council wrapped up a quick and painless meeting.

There are plenty of things on the docket for future meetings, though. Here’s a tour of several of them:

Hartley Nature Center Master Plan According to Councilor Larson, this will come forward next week.

Duluth Public Library Building Councilor Larson also plans to introduce a resolution that will begin a thorough assessment of the main branch building of the library, which has some issues.

Annexation of part of Midway Township This ordinance, read for the first time Monday, will be the next chapter in an ongoing war between Duluth and Proctor over some land with development potential to the west of the two cities.

West Side Renewal First off, the Council took a first step toward approving its matching funds for projects at Wade Stadium and Spirit Mountain, which received state bonding money, on Monday. Next up is a related ordinance, to be followed by a Committee of the Whole on a broader vision for the St. Louis River corridor later this summer. Councilor Larson made it clear she wants more input from the neighborhoods before moving too far ahead on anything. A Gary-New Duluth small area plan also passed without debate on Monday, with Councilor Gardner thanking the neighborhood for its involvement.

The DECC Casino First proposed by Councilor Hanson last meeting, this ambitious plan to recoup some of the lost revenue from the Fon du Luth Casino by turning part of the DECC into a competing casino will wait until after a closed Committee of the Whole meeting in August, if not longer. It will stay on the table for the time being. There is no real rush, as it requires consideration by the state legislature, which would not happen until its 2015 session.

That should give us plenty of time to mull over the pros and cons of the proposal. Obviously, revenue is good, but this project will have to escape the perception that this is merely a jab at the Fon du Lac tribe, and also that it promotes a vice at a time when the city is otherwise often doing war with vices. For my part, I also have serious doubts about the venue. Sure, the DECC is somewhat underused, but it’s also a unique and important event space; its loss would be a problem, and sticking a casino down there would further overcrowd the waterfront district. It would likely take a drastic remodeling no matter what. If we’re serious about this, why not kill two birds with one stone and integrate it into a redesigned St. Louis River corridor?

That’s all I’ve got for this one. If only tomorrow night’s School Board meeting would be this painless…

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