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Our view: Reinstate taxes, boost riverfront

At a public forum in Duluth early last month, Will Munger could hardly contain himself. And who could blame him?

“I feel like I’m kind of seeing a dream come true,” the owner of western Duluth’s Munger Inn said after taking the microphone, the room still echoing with chatter of half-percent taxes being reinstated in Duluth — not to help Canal Park or DECC development this time but to boost the western St. Louis River region, Munger’s longtime back yard.

As much as $18 million could be raised over about 13 years via the painless taxes on hotel stays and on the sales of meals and drinks at restaurants and bars. And yes, painless. We were paying the taxes without hardly even realizing it until the fall of 2012. Who notices seven and a half extra cents on a $15 lunch tab?

And while $1.4 million a year raised through the taxes may not exactly constitute a dream come true for such a large geographical area, if spent wisely the investment does have the potential to be transformative. Look at what the taxes helped do in Canal Park, for the Amsoil Arena and elsewhere. Plus, this is the first time in decades, or perhaps ever, the city has committed to investing on this scale in western Duluth.

The timing is even right. The reconstruction of Grand Avenue and Commonwealth Avenue is scheduled for 2015 and 2016. The work is to include park improvements at Chambers Grove, in Gary-New Duluth, at the zoo, at Memorial Park and at the Wheeler softball and recreation area. Also, a historic environmental cleanup of the St. Louis River and former industrial sites along the river is ongoing.

With so many reasons to do so, the City Council today can vote to re-enact the taxes and to allow the wise spending to begin. The Legislature last session authorized the council’s action.

Once approved, the taxes’ revenues can go straight to work. The city needs an estimated

$4.6 million to match state funds to make long overdue improvements at Wade Stadium and to install a new water-pumping system at Spirit Mountain. New pumps will allow snowmaking to be done with water from the St. Louis River rather than from the city’s water supply, which is a more expensive option and one that’s not always reliable. Improvements to the World War II-era Wade Stadium include a new artificial playing surface, new lighting and repairs to crumbling brick walls.

The prospect of reinstating the taxes and reinvesting in western Duluth was first pitched by Mayor Don Ness at his state-of-the-city address in early March. He had been talking with stakeholders about the idea since 2009. There are opportunities, the mayor said, to create “Duluth’s next great visitor experience” in an area anchored by Spirit Mountain, Lake Superior Zoo and Indian Point Campground. He envisions visitors coming to boat and fish in the river, to ride the trails on mountain bikes or explore them by foot, and to enjoy other amenities and attractions. Young families would start moving there for the same reasons.

The vision is bold and unexpected but not at all unrealistic or misdirected. The first step is reinstating the taxes. The next is investing wisely for maximum benefit.