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With bonding cash nearly in hand, Duluth mayor ready to work

Duluth Mayor Don Ness and members of the city’s legislative delegation basked briefly in the camera lights Monday afternoon as they reflected on the just-ended session at the state Capitol.

A state bonding bill promises to deliver money for all three projects the city had set as priorities, including:

* $6.95 million to renovate the historic NorShor Theatre

* $3.4 million to install a new waterline enabling Spirit Mountain to draw water for its snow-making operations from St. Louis Bay

* $2.3 million for new lights, artificial turf and brickwork repairs at Wade Stadium

“It’s really difficult to imagine a better session for the city of Duluth,” Ness said.

The mayor heaped praise on local lawmakers who reciprocated in turn.

Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, said: “I do want to give some credit to the mayor and the City Council and city staff, too, because they really put together a package that was easy for us to market. It’s a good package. It’s a sound package. It makes really good sense for Duluth in terms of economic development and the future of our city.”

The city also succeeded in its quest to obtain the authorization it needs to reinstate a half-percent tax on local lodging, food and beverage sales. That tax expired in the fall of 2012.

This summer, Ness plans to ask the Duluth City Council to resume the hospitality tax, with the understanding that the $18 million it generates will help develop the St. Louis River corridor as a recreational attraction.

Ness said the city aims to use the new sales tax revenue for the matching funds required to complete work at Wade Stadium and Spirit Mountain.

The mayor said Duluth took a somewhat unorthodox approach to lobbying lawmakers in St. Paul this year.

 “Unlike many bonding projects, where they’re building something brand new and shiny, these are investments in existing amenities in our community,” Ness said. “We are taking things we have and investing in them, so that they’re strong into the future.”

Still, the city didn’t get everything it wanted.

“Our original ask for Wade Stadium was $5.7 million, but we know that legislators faced a difficult task this year,” Ness said.

He said the bonding money will enable the city to tend to the stadium’s most immediate needs for a new field surface, improved lighting and tuckpointing to secure sections of the brick structure that are beginning to give way.

Nevertheless, Ness said the original plan called for additional guest amenities at Wade, including an updated concourse and new, improved seating.

“We have been referring to our scaled-down version of this as ‘Phase I,’ and it will be up to a future City Council and a future administration to determine what form a potential Phase II will take,” he said.

The only place where the city really struck out in St. Paul this year was in its request for additional money to repair the Lake Superior Zoo.

“That was the one disappointment we had during this legislative session,” Ness said.

“The real tragedy of the situation has nothing to do with the state Legislature. The tragedy is that zoo, which was the entity most damaged by the 2012 flood, received a very small amount of flood relief,” he said.

Ness said the zoo received about $200,000 in aid, but he noted that it lost its main attraction when a damaged polar bear exhibit had to be closed down.

Ness hinted at a future bonding request, and Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, said plans already are being laid for another run at state funding for the zoo.

Meanwhile, the city plans to move ahead as quickly as it can with projects that received funding this year.

Developer George Sherman said he expects to begin work on renovations at the NorShor by September if not sooner.