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Former mayor confirms existence of Duluth’s fabled ‘turn out the light’ billboard

Thanks to former Duluth Mayor John Fedo, the story about a billboard appearing along Interstate 35 during the deep recession of the early 1980s has been confirmed. The photograph above is evidence of a long-running anecdote comparing the Duluth of today with the economically withering one back then. 1 / 3
Billboards bemoaning the poor economy popped up across the country, including one in Seattle in 1971. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times, 1971)2 / 3
Former Duluth Mayor John Fedo3 / 3

The anecdote has been uttered on the floor of the U.S. Senate, at Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce dinners and on campaign trails.

It speaks to the state of Duluth in the early 1980s, when it was becoming yet another notch in the deteriorating industrial Rust Belt in tough economic times. The anecdote gets trotted out any time someone talks about the much more stable Duluth of today.

I’ll quote one version from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar from the Congressional Record in 2009, as she talked about a proposed tourism tax on international travelers:

“I know firsthand how important tourism is for the city of Duluth. It has had some very difficult economic times in the (1970s) and (1980s). At one point, it was so bad there was a time there was a billboard that someone put outside Duluth that said, ‘The last one to leave, please turn off the lights.’”

There are a host of other accounts using roughly the same language.

Until now, there had only been one problem with the story. There was no available visual evidence, via photo or newspaper clippings, that the billboard legend ever happened.

Former Duluth Mayor John Fedo scoured his files and found the accompanying snapshot this month after I sent out queries regarding the billboard.

For the record, the billboard states: “Will the last one leaving Duluth please turn out the light.”

Many people who were movers and shakers back then said they recalled the billboard, but that was about it.

Former Duluth City Council member Bob Brooks, who was a few years out of office when the billboard surfaced, remembered it as a sign of the depth of the recession at the time.

“It just added a bit more misery,” he said.

The billboard was hardly original. Versions of it had popped up around a country struggling to diversify its economy from the Industrial Revolution model — most notably in 1971 when Seattle was going through tough times after layoffs at Boeing.

There are no firm details on who might have been behind placing the billboard in Duluth or what day and year it went up. Almost everyone says it was placed next to the southbound lanes of Interstate 35 somewhere between downtown and the Can of Worms interchange.

Fedo, who was mayor from 1980-92, said he thinks a manager at Skoglund Outdoor Advertising “thought it was humorous. I think he underestimated the reaction and quickly removed it.”

Before Fedo’s photograph surfaced, the closest I got to verification of the story was from Joe Jagunich at Lamar Advertising Co., which has since absorbed Skoglund Outdoor Advertising.

He went through the old files and found no artwork or photos.

He did speak to two employees who said they installed the sign.

“They said it was only up for two hours, and they had to go back and take it down,” Jagunich said.

The employees provided a rough time frame for when this happened, and I checked about six months of the News Tribune archives on microfilm. It was depressing, reminding me of stark times here and in my own life three hours south.

It’s easy to miss something while skimming through microfilm, so I asked former publisher John McMillion, who wrote very spirited columns back in those recession times. It would seem such a billboard would have been great fodder for him.

I had gone through most of the columns we have in a clipping file from 1980 to 1983 and saw no mention of the billboard.

“Vaguely,” McMillion said from his home in Two Harbors when asked if he recalled it.

Brooks said he probably never saw the sign, and he, like many others, is probably remembering a clip of it on television news.

News Tribune photo editor Bob King was on staff at the time and said it’s unlikely there was a news photo taken.

Dave Ouse is delighted with Fedo’s picture.

Ouse is my go-to guy for historical clippings at the Duluth Public Library.

He said there have been many requests at the reference desk for photos or stories about the billboard. He’s never been able to find any, save for a reference in an unrelated story in the News Tribune in 1996. A reporter constructed a timeline for high school graduates that year, making mention of events that had passed since they were born in 1978. Even she got the exact wording wrong:

“1982: Skoglund Advertising erects a billboard along Interstate 35 asking, ‘Will the last person to leave Duluth please turn out the lights?’”

So my project to cast some doubt on what seemed like an urban legend has been turned on its head. Details remain, of course: Who was behind the billboard? Where and when exactly was it placed?

If anyone else out there wants to chime in, have at it. Send me an email or leave a message on my phone.

I thank John Bray, retired spokesman from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, for getting the wheels churning by creating an email chain of sources that eventually led to Fedo and the picture.

They’ve all added important information about a symbol of what probably was the “worst time” in Duluth’s history, Brooks said.

Mayor Don Ness was in on the emails and the eventual photo attachment and wrote to Fedo: “Thanks in large part to you and other leaders in the 1980s, this is no longer our reality.”

“Hopefully, we never revisit those times again,” Fedo replied.

Have a person or idea in mind for the Neighbors column? Contact Mike Creger at (218) 723-5218 or mcreger@duluthnews.com.

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