West Duluth business scene sees growth during pandemic

Black Label Tattoo and Piercing, In Harmony Reiki and Inner Wellness, and Raise the Barre are among new businesses that opened in Spirit Valley in the last year.

Artist Alec Polling works on a stone cross for Perry Fagan
Artist Alec Polling, left, works on a stone cross for Perry Fagan, of West Duluth, on Feb. 3 at Black Label Tattoo and Piercing. “He’s the best artist in Duluth,” Fagan said of Polling.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — West Duluth’s business scene is on an upswing again, at least from the perspective of several business owners in the neighborhood. Over the last year, several new businesses have opened in the community and seen success in their ventures.

Black Label Tattoo and Piercing

Tattoo artists Alec Polling and Dick Davis and piercer Ashley Minkkinen opened their own studio in June after working at Absolute Body Art in West Duluth.

“We needed to expand,” Polling said. “We were running out of room and we each had apprentices. We needed a bigger, nicer location.”

Tattoo artist Bunny, right, works on a piece for Autumn Christie, of Proctor,
Tattoo artist Bunny, right, works on a piece for Autumn Christie, of Proctor, on Feb. 3 at Black Label Tattoo and Piercing in West Duluth.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

So they created Black Label Tattoo and Piercing at 217 N. 59th Ave. W. They said they’ve already been welcomed in by other business owners in the neighborhood, especially those in the art scene. They were already established with clients in the West Duluth area and wanted to stay nearby.

“I noticed that most of my neighborhood, the Denfeld neighborhood, is all young couples starting families,” Polling said. “We really like the area and we’re seeing some potential for future businesses, especially on this main drag.”


Tattoo artist Dick Davis works on a leg piece for Giovanni Saldavir,
Tattoo artist Dick Davis works on a leg piece for Giovanni Saldavir, of Duluth, on Feb. 3 at Black Label Tattoo and Piercing.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

For the three co-owners and their apprentices, their services have been in high demand since the pandemic created some backlogs in appointments across studios and parlors. They’ve had a steady stream of customers, in both established and new clients. Davis and Polling don’t specialize in any certain art style, instead working with clients to create their own custom visions. Minkkinen specializes in ear, face and body piercing.

Tattoo artist Phil Anderson works on a piece
Tattoo artist Phil Anderson works on a piece at Black Label Tattoo and Piercing in West Duluth on Feb. 3.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

They pride themselves on being a family-friendly business, despite admitting that there is still some stigma associated with tattoos and piercing. In addition to having a kid’s area in the studio for clients’ children to entertain themselves, they also have hosted several pop-up community events to bring businesses and vendors together for area residents to visit.

“I think being involved in this community is really important, especially in our business, because word of mouth is huge for us,” Davis said.

In Harmony Reiki and Inner Wellness

Debbie Merrick, who opened In Harmony Reiki and Inner Wellness in May 2021, said she’s been happy to give West Duluthians and other people living in the area an opportunity to utilize the personal growth services she offers. She said joining the business community has opened her eyes to the variety and scope of businesses in West Duluth.

West Duluth business owner
Debbie Merrick poses in her new West Duluth business, In Harmony Reiki and Inner Wellness, on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“For all of this business activity to be existing and flourishing in this part of town is just, to me, such a testament to the commitment and the perseverance of people in West Duluth that want to offer things that are nearby for people in these neighborhoods so they don’t have to travel all over,” Merrick said.

Merrick offers reiki, yoga, meditation, life coaching, posture training and other wellness options at her space at 5628 Grand Ave., formerly home to Little Neetchers.

Little Neetchers will reopen at 1832 W. Superior St. in June, with 3,800 square feet of retail and play space.

She said mental wellness, especially during times of stress like during the pandemic, is especially important for people to prioritize, but they don’t always know what options are out there.

“There’s a lot of people on this spiritual growth path and they just don’t really know where they can go to talk about it,” she said.


Merrick said she has needed to offer some education to people in the community about what the benefits of her services are, but once customers know about her business, they’ve been impressed by their results and come back for more sessions. She said one of the biggest struggles she’s had is just getting people in the door to see that her business is there.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘You could probably get more business and traffic if you were in a different part of town,’ but myself and many of the other businesses in this area want to be in West Duluth specifically for that reason, because West Duluth deserves to have these things available,” Merrick said.

Raise the Barre

Paige Larson opened her ballet studio Raise the Barre in September. Six months later, she said she’s still getting new registrations daily for her classes, which are offered to people age 3 and older.

Raise the Barre, owned by Paige Larson, will begin offering classical ballet classes Sept. 7 in West Duluth.

A former student of the Minnesota Ballet, Larson opened her West Duluth studio to give students an opportunity to receive classical training with more flexibility. Larson said not only does she have students from the West Duluth area, but from all over the Twin Ports region, including the Lakeside-Lester Park neighborhood of Duluth, plus Gary-New Duluth, Cloquet and Superior.

“A lot of parents have been quite impressed with how much is out here that they didn’t know about,” Larson said. “Bringing in all these other families, we are hopefully building up other businesses around here."

Ballet instructor Paige Kohler Larson at her studio Aug. 23.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune

While their children are in class, many parents will pass the time by visiting the West Duluth branch of the Duluth Public Library, or grab a cup of coffee at Wussow’s Concert Cafe, or will run errands at the Super One or Menards.

Larson lives in West Duluth, and while she considered establishing her studio elsewhere, she found the perfect space just down the street in the former Danish Bakery.

“We were starting to look in the Hermantown area and it just didn’t feel right. The Hermantown area was a very highly trafficked area, but did something like this need to be up there, or was something like this more so needed in this area?” Larson said. “This is my area. This is where we live, so we really wanted to invest in this area.”


Larson said she hopes to continue expanding her enrollment, and even possibly open a second studio, but COVID has made that difficult, requiring her to cap some class sizes so students can comfortably spread out. She then adds additional classes as needed as her current classes fill up.

She has also been expanding her involvement with the West Duluth business community, joining as the secretary of the West Duluth Business Club and becoming a member of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce. Larson said she’s enjoyed getting to know other business owners and to learn about various business resources.

West Duluth business community

Susan Coen, president of the West Duluth Business Club and a State Farm insurance agent, said over the three decades she’s been in West Duluth she’s seen the business scene fluctuate.

A look at new shops Ren Market and Naturalight Candles and how The Boreal House are doing since opening during the pandemic.

“We’re definitely on an upcycle,” Coen said.

Recent new businesses like Naturalight Candles and the Boreal House, plus Bailey Builds, Zenith Bookstore, and the reopening of The West Theatre, have all seen successful beginnings over the past five years.

Anna and Nathanael Bailey, owners of Bailey Builds, said despite not being West Duluth residents, they couldn’t imagine owning their business in another neighborhood.

“We didn’t realize there was such a synergy of the people that live there,” Nathanael Bailey said.

Anna Bailey and her husband, Nathanael.
Contributed / Facebook @annabaileying

The Baileys are planning to open their second building, in the 9,000-square-foot former Bell Brothers Funeral Home, by the end of the year. They’re using it as an office space, and will add studio spaces to give back to the artist community.

“We didn’t intentionally set down roots there, but we believe everything happens for a reason,” Anna Bailey said. “We now wouldn’t move our business anywhere else. We just absolutely love West Duluth and Spirit Valley especially.”

Coen said the neighborhood is self-sufficient, with grocery stores, banks, pharmacies, liquor stores, salons, restaurants and other essential and niche businesses. The one thing West Duluth lacks is a department or clothing store, which was lost when Kmart closed.

The Duluth Planning Commission voted 6-0 to kill the proposed redevelopment.

The West Duluth Business Club has come together to oppose the rezoning of the building for U-Haul and storage units, Coen said, because they want the space to be a business that would attract repeated customer use.

Merrick said she feels that West Duluth doesn’t always get the same support that Canal Park, Lincoln Park or downtown Duluth business districts get.

“I think there’s this sense of feeling like the underdog because we’re treated like it,” Merrick said.

Coen said that she also believes that’s true, until people come to the neighborhood and see that West Duluth isn’t an underdog at all. The neighborhood has schools, industries, and both St. Luke’s and Essentia clinics. This provides many jobs, and brings lots of traffic through the area. Plus, it’s easily accessible from the interstate.

Coen said there is still room for more business growth, but office space is becoming more scarce. There are still plenty of vacant lots and buildings for people to develop and bring their creativity to the West Duluth business community.

“It’s cool to see the growth in Spirit Valley because Spirit Valley is actually set up for it,” Nathanael Bailey said. “Lincoln Park is absolutely amazing and they’re growing, but it’s even more set up for business than Lincoln Park is already. It’s this little hub of activity that is just ready to be filled and continue to work with these amazing businesses.”

This story originally contained a misspelling of Ashley Minkkinen’s name. It was updated at 4:15 p.m. Feb. 16 with the proper spelling. The News Tribune regrets the error.

Essentia Health and the Benedictine Sisters of St. Scholastica Monastery said that the building, which is 100 years old in some parts, is too expensive to renovate or repurpose.

Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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