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Local view: Even in cold cash, investing in outdoors amenities pays off

Eric Chandler

People don’t visit Duluth to ride roller coasters. People come here to throw rocks in that big, shark-free lake. They come to fish, hike the trails and mountain bike, to find their way north to the Boundary Waters. We’re used to visitors passing through on their way up the shore. In case you forgot, Outside magazine picked Duluth as the best outdoors city in the whole country. We’re not just a pit stop. We’re the destination.

Frolicking in the outdoors makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. You can’t buy groceries with feelings? OK. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, in 2012, outdoor recreation in Minnesota generated $11.6 billion. That’s billion with a b. There are 118,000 Minnesota jobs directly tied to the outdoor industry and $815 million in state and local tax revenue. According to the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota, in 2010, mining contributed $3 billion to the state’s economy, 11,200 jobs and $152 million in taxes. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and University of Minnesota Duluth wrote a report in 2011 called Economic Contribution of Minnesota’s Forest Products Industry. Forest products generate $9.7 billion, 40,369 jobs and $621 million in taxes.

Even if you cut the Minnesota outdoor industry impact in half, it would still be as big as our other local industries.

Regarding taxes, this newspaper recently reported that Duluth revenue from the tourism tax topped $10 million this year. That’s double the amount generated 10 years ago. The News Tribune’s Peter Passi wrote that this money must go back to the “industry from which it was generated.”

Along comes the ambitious St. Louis River Corridor Project. The city of Duluth website says $18 million of tax money is targeted to this plan in western Duluth. Projects will boost the zoo, Spirit Mountain and Wade Stadium. A climbing venue is being designed in Casket Quarry. Destination hiking trails will be built, paddling and kayak facilities are proposed along the river, the cross-city trail is growing, and the proposed Grand Avenue Nordic Center will be at the base of Spirit Mountain for cross-country skiing.

Some said trails were frivolous in the recent mayoral election. If you’re upset tax money is designated for the St. Louis River Corridor, realize it will leverage an equal amount of revenue from grants and other sources. So your money will double. Your $18 million in taxes will turn into $36 million pouring into western Duluth to build outdoor infrastructure. That’s good for everybody, even a kid riding her bike on a safe, paved trail right by her house.

Oops, I just talked about a child playing. Sorry. I got all squishy and lost focus on cash.

I’m not a businessman, but I’ve heard them say you need to spend money to make money. If you want people to come breathe clean air, play in clean water, and maybe rent a few bikes and eat some meals while they’re here, you need to build infrastructure. It might seem frivolous to build a bike trail, but it’s no different than building an ore dock to load taconite onto a laker.

This isn’t all about tourists. We live here. We choose how we shape our town. Obviously, I support these new projects. But we also need to maintain them. We need to spend tourism tax revenue on the upkeep of these new outdoor venues over the long haul. Because these are our trails and parks, too. (I personally view it as tourists helping us, not the other way around.) Bottom line: Everybody wins.

Writing for Zenith City Online, Nancy Nelson quoted the Duluth Parks Board as saying this way back in 1891: “The park system of a modern city not only aims at beauty but strives to express the concept of the soul of the city. The parks of a modern city bear witness that its people are members of one great family.”

Duluth has character. New trails and outdoor facilities are good for our city’s soul. If loving the outdoors isn’t motivation enough, then think of the St. Louis River Corridor Project as an investment. A good one.

Eric Chandler of Duluth is an airline pilot who has skied the American Birkebeiner 13 times and has run Grandma’s Marathon 10 times. Contact him at ericchandler.wordpress.com.

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