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Local view: Outside contest gave Duluth a direction

OK. I confess. I obsessively followed the big contest this summer, the Outside magazine Best Outdoors City tournament in which Duluth outshined 63 other American cities. I even jumped off my never-join-a-social-media wagon and posted comments.

I believe the Outside magazine contest, including comments posted by voters, led us to two important conclusions, ones that could map our desired future: One, the paramount reason Duluth lags in population growth is our cold and long winters, both real and overstated. And two, Duluthians are passionately proud of their city. Our younger adults are surprisingly knowledgeable about details that make Duluth special.

During the six rounds of the contest the most repeated negative comment about Duluth was climate-related. “Duluth seems a beautiful town, but it’s just too cold for outside winter activity,” someone posted from Provo, Utah, our worthy co-finalist.

This unleashed a barrage of counter-fire; the best of the many retorts from Duluth was: “Provo seems beautiful but not cold enough for reliable outdoor winter activity.” That sounded about right to me.

I have never understood the draw of winter living anywhere between Minnesota and the Deep South. Three winter months I once spent in Missouri were the coldest of my six-plus decades. There was higher red on the thermometer, but there was also bone-shivering dampness, sloppy skating rinks, brownish-gray vegetation and infrequent but black snow piles.

And how about the Deep South? We Duluthians know the outdoor trick of layering. The trick Down South during the heat of May through September is to stay indoors.

Come on, Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, here’s a great new slogan: “Cold Enough for Pristine Winters.”

We could also make it known that if anyone thinks Minnesotans want to leave the state because of cold winters they are wrong. In a May survey, Gallup found Minnesotans the least likely to want to move away from their state.

The pride exhibited by young Duluthians via social-media comments during the Outside magazine contest gave comfort to us old-timers who want future generations to enjoy the Duluth that has given us such pleasure. Young Duluthians praised the city’s major greenbelt and how it offers backdoor wilderness, wildlife and broad spans of vegetation. The air here is so clean, they wrote, it’s easy to view our regular displays of northern lights.

They posted about the changes of the seasons that are distinct enough to provide variety and a rhythm to life. They pointed out our international orientation with colorful commercial shipping in a busy working port in the very heart of town and how we can enjoy two or three large colorful vessels arriving each shipping day and more than 1,000 a year. They talked about how Duluth’s neighborhoods have proud identities strongly defined by topographical boundaries; even our most affluent neighborhoods have a range of income levels and architecture.

Perfect size, the young Duluthians continued; Duluth is large enough for a major symphony orchestra, two universities and many other cultural and educational benefits usually found only in larger cities, yet it’s also small enough to get actively involved.  

And they mentioned our engaging geology with its many trout streams and steep slopes and our avenues that provide stunning view corridors toward our majestic lake. Most agreed Lake Superior is our most powerful and best advantage.

Smart cities understand, nurture and capitalize on their unique advantages and their special qualities of character and personality. That’s just what so many young Duluthians did during the Outside magazine contest. We need more of that.

Our population is now 86,000. Some people are coming down on Mayor Don Ness for failing to meet his population growth target. They are wrong. Don’t blame him for our weather. He’s done a great job understanding and building upon our advantages. It takes time to change perceptions, but our young folks seem to be doing just that.

Along with other Duluthians, I’ve wished for more and better jobs and have thought about increased population. In fact, I lead discussion classes at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s University for Seniors program in which we assess the qualities that make our city special. The class consensus is that they would like the city to have more people — but only modestly more. We’re not interested in sprawl, traffic congestion or the loss of open spaces that provide outdoor activities and contact with nature.

But how about jobs? What comes first, people or jobs? Who will fill the new jobs? Will they be filled with our sons and daughters who we wish to heaven could stay in town? Will they be filled by new folks moving in?

I’m not sure the emphasis should be toward population. Perhaps the loud horns voiced in social media by proud young Duluthians will draw investors and creative entrepreneurship, with good jobs to follow.

So, can I find a defense for our ridiculously long winters? Whoa. On second thought, let others think it’s too cold here. I’m not wishing for a city of 200,000. 100,000? Yes.

Jerry Kimball is a retired city planner for the city of Duluth. He led the city’s Physical Planning Division for 26 years.

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