Nearly four years in the making, the first tenants are at last moving into the 96-unit housing development that replaced the Morgan Park School.
Standing on the exterior balcony of one of the two-bedroom apartments, developer Aaron Schweiger took in the view of the new Morgan Park Estates, featuring lookalike units styled like townhomes with rent set at $1,600 per month.
“We’ve done a wonderful project here, and I’m excited,” said Schweiger, a 41-year-old Duluth native and Hermantown resident. “I’m proud of it.”
The $18 million development started following demolition of the old neighborhood school in 2017, and experienced delays throughout the project.
Expected to be completed last summer, finishing work throughout parts of the complex will carry into August.
But Schweiger, officially the managing director of Zenith City Asset Management, brushed off the hiccups, and all he can see now is the future.
“The western St. Louis River corridor is a growing area of Duluth,” he said. “This is a unique property. Morgan Park is shedding its industrial past and growing into the future.”
The development is just the beginning of a portfolio for Schweiger, including what he hopes will be the first tiny-home community in the city along the Point of Rocks just west of downtown Duluth.
“Truly, this is my most exciting project at the moment,” said Schweiger, who will go before the city's planning commission in early July to seek permits that would yield a 35-unit cottage home village. He hopes to break ground in late summer.
A Duluth East graduate, Schweiger first worked in Democratic-Farmer-Labor politics, then went to college and became a lawyer. He tumbled into commercial development when his business partner, Brian Solsrud, encouraged him to join forces in 2014. He hasn’t looked back.
“I truly lucked out,” Schweiger said. “I count my blessings every day.”
Solsrud owns investment and banking groups based in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and is the owner of the Point of Rocks property neighboring Glen Place Apartments to the west.
The two partners have been on a roll lately:
They purchased the 130-year-old former Gardner Hotel on downtown Duluth's Lake Avenue this month for $695,000. They plan to invest $2.5 million to make the vacant building into 30 housing units in the renamed Schweiger Building. “The way I look at it,” Schweiger said, “my family has been here since the 1880s, and I really do love historical preservation.”
They bought the Northernaire Apartments on Oakes Street in Superior for $3.4 million with plans for a full remodel in three to four years.
They landed the 32-unit Laurentian Apartments in Biwabik for $875,000 and have started a $1.5 million gut and remodel to turn the 32-unit complex into 42 units by adding studios into the mix.
“We purchased older apartments in need of some TLC,” Schweiger said. “We think this is a great market to be growing into. It’s a stable market here in the Upper Midwest. We do not see a bubble. We see a strong market and a lot of stability into the future.”
Early in life, Schweiger and former Duluth Mayor Don Ness worked together for the late U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar. They strolled parades together, and debated solutions for a changing world. In a development world fraught with politics, pitfalls and personality conflicts, Ness described Schweiger as someone able to conduct difficult conversations in respectful ways.
“He’s always struck me as somebody who had a lot of ambition to make a positive impact in his community,” Ness said of Schweiger. "Duluth has been well-served by developers like George Sherman, Mark Lambert and Brian Forcier. Eric is kind of part of the next generation ready to take on those challenges, and do so with good intent behind him."
On the topic of difficult conversations, the News Tribune asked Schweiger further about the tiny-home development planned for Point of Rocks.
The development is not located in the same rock outcropping as the homeless encampment broken up by Duluth police in 2020; rather, it is almost directly across from the M&H fueling station. The partners have tried to develop the area before, but struck out with difficulties in developing among the rocks. Blasting the area was out of the question due to city sewer lines and underground tunnels.
“With tiny homes, we can be minimally invasive with site work,” Schweiger said, describing 20-by-20-foot lots with 550-square-foot homes for sale.
Sticker price for each home is tentatively set at $199,000. It is decidedly not low-income housing.
“That’s true,” he said.
But the project would be putting in a road off Glen Place, as well as a parking lot, utilities and amenities that don’t exist, he contended.
“I have zero doubt that the Facebook- and Twitter-verse will be balking at $200,000 for a tiny house, and I get it,” Schweiger said. “But people will understand they’re not just buying a tiny home — they’re buying a beautiful little piece of property with a house situated with just an amazing view and location in Duluth.”
Regarding Morgan Park Estates, Schweiger said the development will have full-time management from Premier Pre/3, a national management company based in Wisconsin. He noted easy access to biking and ski trails, the Spirit Mountain slopes, and canoe and boat access in the nearby Smithville neighborhood.
Schweiger expects 90% occupancy once Morgan Park Estates are fully up and running.
“There’s a strong sense of community pride existing in the neighborhood already,” he said. “We want our new residents to be part of that.”