New volunteer coordinator position invests in Duluth’s futureLately, I’ve been kicking around a new motto for our fair city: “Duluth: The City that Volunteers.” It may lack the swagger of “The City that Works” (my hometown’s sometimes dubious motto), but it will have to ring true in the coming years to preserve Duluth’s quality of life.
By: Michael Kooi, for the Duluth Budgeteer News
Lately, I’ve been kicking around a new motto for our fair city: “Duluth: The City that Volunteers.” It may lack the swagger of “The City that Works” (my hometown’s sometimes dubious motto), but it will have to ring true in the coming years to preserve Duluth’s quality of life.
That’s because the city’s infrastructure remains larger than what the tax base can maintain. You see the shortfall in everything from the pock-marked streets to the brittle water pipes to the aging parks facilities.
Yes, the parks system remains on the list; even the new tax money dedicated to it will barely cover the cost of physically maintaining current facilities. Upgrades and programming must still come from elsewhere.
That’s where volunteer groups such as the Neighbors of Lower Chester Park (NOLCP) are trying to fill the void. Composed primarily of neighborhood homeowners, NOLCP has breathed new life into the hockey rink and warming house at 15th Avenue East and Fifth Street. The group leases the park from the city, which would otherwise shutter it.
This agreement is succeeding in a number of important ways. First, it has revitalized a proud park that was otherwise destined to become a blighted magnet for malfeasance. That’s good for neighborhood safety and property values. Second, it is emerging as a surprisingly effective model for improving relations between neighborhood residents and college students. Many of the latter come to skate, but stay to pitch in with flooding, maintenance and site supervision.
It’s a glimpse into the future. But none of it would be happening without NOLCP members putting time and money where their mouths are. They have staked their own money for the facility’s liability insurance. And volunteers such as Larry Schneider, who handles rink flooding and other site maintenance, and Terry Bakke, who supervises the warming shack, routinely spend 20 hours or more at the park each week.
Of course, NOLCP is neither the first nor the only group of its kind in Duluth. In fact, hundreds of residents volunteer thousands of hours equaling hundreds of thousands of dollars in labor each year to the city. Some trim trees and groom trails. Some run ski programs for kids. And some serve on citizen patrols.
With so many volunteers on the front lines of so many critical “quality of life” services, you’d think the decision to use a small portion of the new parks and library funding to create a position to coordinate and cultivate this valuable resource would make perfect sense. Yet, one city counselor complained to the Duluth News Tribune about using the new parks money to create a new city job, and the paper followed up with an editorial that practically begged anyone who agreed to send in a letter.
Much of the criticism I’ve heard personally has come from the same people who often tell me that government should be run more like a business. The government-business analogy is a false one, but let’s give it a spin anyway:
Imagine running your business without knowing exactly how many employees you have, how many hours they’re working, or whether their individual skills match the work they’re doing. And although they’re providing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in free labor, you have no way to manage, account for or anticipate their contributions in your budget.
Would you tolerate such chaos? Or would you invest a fraction of the money this workforce saves you each year to help cultivate it, quantify its size and contributions, improve its efficiency and maximize its impact for the future?
I say the city has wisely chosen the latter.
Michael Kooi is a freelance writer and resident of Duluth’s East Hillside neighborhood. He writes about Duluth at dulu-sions.areavoices.com.