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Local view: Duluth thrives by offering ‘life away from work’

When Duluth business leader Monnie Goldfine and I published “The Will and the Way” in 2004, our idea was simply to acknowledge our community’s achievements after losing the steel plant and other key elements of our manufacturing economy like Diamond Calk, Klearflax, Coolerator and Clyde Iron. In his introduction to the book, Harold Frederick, once Duluth’s city attorney, wrote that its purpose “is not to provide a forum to brag about what occurred, but rather to serve as a navigational aid to the generation that is following.”

That seems to be coming true, not because of the book, but by persistent community principles well-applied.

We have enough new private and public successes to fill a Volume II: aviation growth like AAR, Cirrus and Kestrel; robust, new or growing enterprises like Loll Designs/Epicurean, Altec HiLine, A&L Properties, the hotels in Canal Park, Bluestone, Ikonics, Citon, Involta, Compudyne, the Sheraton and LHB; Enbridge’s continued growth in the Twin Ports; an indoor waterpark; and confident investments in places such as the Zuccone/

Zinema complex, Atwater’s new Maurices headquarters, our several craft breweries, South Pier, Marina Inn and Pier B. Plus, there’s Amsoil Arena, a new air terminal, the Clyde Iron redevelopment, specialized call centers, top-tier schools and higher-ed choices, outstanding health care options, an expanded education center at the Great Lakes Aquarium, a growing trail system and a new vigor in old downtown, including born-again prospects for the NorShor.

Our region has high-energy economic-development specialists who constantly are cooperating to prospect for and assist new business as well as public investment. But if they didn’t have a good climate to promote, they would be forced to misrepresent or whitewash their product. We’re gradually discovering we have what it takes to set the stage for confident investment, both public and private, and there’s no whitewashing required.

One reason for the Northland’s special appeal shows up in recent research by Endeavor Insight, a “knowledge center for high impact entrepreneurs,” as it describes itself. Its key findings in the report, “What Do the Best Entrepreneurs Want in a City?” emphasize quality-of-life factors and a pool of talented employees who also value social and cultural amenities. These include “social capital,” where bonding by friendships pervades a community, a concept studied in depth by social scientist Robert Putnam, who did some of his research in Duluth under Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation auspices.

Endeavor Insight also found that entrepreneurs rarely cite low tax rates or business-friendly regulations as reasons for starting a business in a specific city. The Putnam theory similarly is emphasized by urban studies theorist Richard Florida, who teaches how a creative class fosters an open, dynamic, personal and professional urban environment.

When I first discovered the Endeavor Insight study in an online Atlantic report by Florida, I asked Brian Hanson of APEX to name an exemplary young entrepreneur, one who chose the Northland for a business start-up because of quality-of-life factors attractive to him or her as well as prospective employees. He suggested 32-year-old Jon Loss, who came here knowing this area offers what he termed, “a life away from work.” Jon told me, “When you are talking about incentives other than financial, you are talking about a different kind of worker, one that has passion, one that is motivated by outside factors, (and) one that doesn’t watch the clock but is finished when the job is done. These same attentions carry over to other aspects of life” like music, theater, recreational choices, unchained eateries, brewpubs and the stimulation that radiates from our campuses.

It would be interesting if we had space to ask other companies why they chose the Northland, but Jon’s two businesses, a microbrewery and a marketing communications service, are launched in a setting where social and cultural capital are vital signs of a healthy economy.

Having “a life away from work” likely applies to those who step forward for community leadership, too. As the last sentences in “The Will and the Way” advise, “It also helps if we choose good mayors, pick councilors who are confident team players having some acquaintance with business and economics, (and) spread the load by delegating to leaders and emerging leaders.” Amen!

While it’s no time to be complacent, I think we have much to celebrate, don’t you?

Donn Larson operated the agency that is now WestmorelandFlint until his retirement; he long has been active in community service, including two terms as a Duluth city councilor at-large.