Our view: Long-term, big-picture commitment and follow-through are musts to ensure a future for SeawayThe team of housing and neighborhood-revitalization experts coming together to save the Seaway Hotel doesn’t disagree: The condemned, three-story, roach-infested, crime-riddled, sometimes sex offender-filled flophouse is an embarrassment to Duluth and a blight in the heart of Lincoln Park’s business district. Do we really let people live there? Really, shouldn’t it just be torn down already? We’re better than this. If only answers could be so simple.
The team of housing and neighborhood-revitalization experts coming together to save the Seaway Hotel doesn’t disagree: The condemned, three-story, roach-infested, crime-riddled, sometimes sex offender-filled flophouse is an embarrassment to Duluth and a blight in the heart of Lincoln Park’s business district. Do we really let people live there? Really, shouldn’t it just be torn down already? We’re better than this.
If only answers could be so simple.
“It would be better to do that,” to just demolish the building and replace it with a mix of housing options across the city to satisfy Duluth’s housing, and especially low-income housing, needs, a member of that team, Lee Stuart, executive director of Duluth’s CHUM drop-in center, acknowledged in a meeting last week with the News Tribune editorial board. “But we don’t have that luxury right now. We should be headed toward that — and we are headed toward that — but in the gap, in the interim … we have to take hold of this place.”
The reality is there are about 60 people living in the Seaway — 60 fellow Duluthians, our neighbors. About half of them are frail or elderly and couldn’t afford rent anywhere else. They’re not the ones causing the problems. Without the Seaway, their home, they’d be out on our frozen streets.
So with those residents as priority No. 1, and with assurances from architects, inspectors and others that the structure is still sound enough to withstand rehabilitation, the Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority is stepping up to buy the Seaway and clean it up. But not alone. The Duluth Economic Development Authority is being asked to help with financing the purchase. The Minnesota Housing Finance Agency and other sources are being tapped to pay for as much as $1 million of renovations. And CHUM, the HRA, Center City Housing and others are planning to work together to manage the building 24/7 while offering residents the consistent, on-site services they need and aren’t now getting. Sometimes it takes a village.
In addition, a rehabilitated Seaway will be monitored by security cameras; its street level will be fronted by businesses, including tenant-run businesses; and its rooms will be filled with residents both carefully selected (no troublemakers) and willing to hold each other accountable via a tenants association. The difference is expected to be so dramatic the building will need a new name. Suggestions are welcome.
“At bar-closing time, at 2 o’clock in the morning, you aren’t going to bring your five new best friends in anymore,” Center City Housing Executive Director Rick Klun said. “It just ain’t going to happen that way anymore.” Drug use, drug dealing, prostitution and other detrimental activities happening now will no longer be tolerated. The Seaway will no longer be the Kozy of the west.
The current private owner of the Seaway will get $230,000 for the building and its contents. That may be more than twice the Seaway’s estimated market value, but it still “feels like blood money, there’s no question,” Klun said. “But … how do you value the housing for 60 people?”
As galling to taxpayers as that payday may be, what other choice is there? The city condemned the building in 2012. If someone doesn’t buy it, take it over and make improvements soon the improvements won’t get done at all and the residents will be evicted. And then the building will sit empty for who knows how long, becoming even more of a blight and even more of a magnet for rot and wrongdoing.
Increased homelessness, the Seaway’s ongoing negative impact on the neighborhood and community, and its inevitable and eventual need to be demolished would cost taxpayers far more in the long run than the public money the HRA and its partners are talking about investing now.
“There is a cost to not act,” said Pam Kramer of the Duluth Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a nonprofit that works to fix up Duluth’s aging neighborhoods and homes.
So that’s the short-term. That’s the immediate. That’s what has to happen now.
And while it is happening, the city of Duluth can follow through on tdeveloping an overall plan for the business area surrounding the Seaway. And Center City Housing and others can follow up on addressing Duluth’s long-term housing needs and ending homelessness.
A few years down the road, better options are expected to exist for Seaway residents, and the hotel is expected not to be a concentration of trouble anymore but a niche in fulfilling the community’s overall housing needs.
As tough as it might be for some taxpayers to swallow, public money invested in the Seaway now makes sense — as long as long-term housing and business-district needs and projects aren’t forgotten.