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Our View: Downtown Duluth brims with optimism

Duluth’s downtown is brimming with optimism and enthusiasm. If the construction cranes, flurries of pedestrians and buzz of near-constant activity aren’t enough evidence, consider the conversation early Wednesday at a breakfast meeting of the Greater Downtown Council.

Led by the council’s president, Kristi Stokes, and Duluth Mayor Don Ness, the event praised and showcased as evidence of rebounding good times 19 different projects or improvements in our city’s center.

“There are so many great things that have been happening that we need to celebrate,” Stokes said as downtown, an epicenter of another ramping-up make-or-break summer tourism season in Duluth, gets ready for its annual Sidewalk Days Festival July 9-11. “When I see the cranes and I see construction equipment that all means significant progress. But there are other signs as well (from an increase) in businesses looking at downtown … to those who have been stakeholders for the long haul and have been looking at reinvestment.”

“These are exciting times in our downtown,” Ness added.

No development downtown could be more exciting than the recent start of construction of the $70 million office tower at Fifth Avenue West and Superior Street that’s to be the corporate home of Maurices. The clothing company is investing $50 million in the project, which is to include 185,000 square feet of office space, 15,000 square feet of retail, 250 construction jobs, and space for 600 employees. Maurices’ present building holds only about 425 employees.

“Obviously we’re very excited to see this transformation,” Ness said. “What a tremendous anchor for the west side of downtown. It’ll change our skyline for the better.”

A multimodal transportation hub breaks ground next week not far away on Michigan Street, the mayor said. Construction should last about 18 months. The connecting skywalk over Interstate 35 to the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, known as the Northwest Passage, will be rebuilt and reopened in 2015.

The $29 million Pier B hotel project, across a slip from Bayfront Festival Park, will be a “great investment in our waterfront,” Ness continued. “When it’s complete it will be a good reflection on our community and give our visitors just another tremendous option.”

Ness also mentioned the Radisson hotel’s new owners’ commitment to reinvestment; the St. Louis County office building on Second Street at Fourth

Avenue West, which is undergoing a $21 million renovation; the Holiday Inn’s already completed upgrades and its “ongoing commitment to downtown;” the just-opened Great Lakes Gift and Gallery and Red Herring Lounge; ARI’s $750,000 investment in its building and Lake Superior College’s $1.5 million investment in the same building; the old Carlson Book building, which is to be renovated this summer by the same guys who created Tycoons and Fitger’s Brewhouse; the soon-to-be renovated NorShor Theatre; the Gardner Hotel on Lake Avenue and its new owners’ plans to convert it into 12 market-rate apartments; plans for 21 more market-rate apartments on the upper floors of Canal Park’s Grizzly’s building; Barr Engineering’s $5.5 million renovation of two floors of the Waterfront Plaza in Canal Park; and more.

In addition, Ness said, Duluth is excited to welcome back the Duluth Trading Company. “We’re just thrilled,” he said. “Much like Duluth Pack, Duluth Trading Company (sells) high-quality, (with)-kind-of-rugged-materials, built-to-last products. We’re thrilled to share the name.”

Downtown still has its challenges, of course, and its trouble spots. Ness mentioned only three, and two of them, the former Kozy apartments and Gateway Towers, are the focus of big plans that show great promise. They’re each poised to be among Duluth’s next success stories while the Muffler Clinic site awaits redevelopment.

“We’re seeing a lot of enthusiasm and positive energy and that’s translating into real investment into these properties, whether it’s at a retail level, folks relocating into downtown or on that development level and looking at opportunities to build,” Ness said.

Granted, the mayor and Greater Downtown Council are in the business of promoting exciting times, whether or not they actually exist. But much of what they talked about early Wednesday couldn’t have been discussed, much less praised, just a few short years ago. So let the optimism flow.