The city of Duluth now estimates it will cost about $3 million to rehabilitate and repair its notoriously unreliable pedestrian lift bridge.
A funding source for the project was approved by the Duluth City Council earlier this week, but one member - 5th District Councilor Jay Fosle - objected, raising questions about whether it was appropriate to use tourism tax collections to fix a bridge.
"The council has been told for years that you cannot use tourism tax for infrastructure projects," he said.
"If we could use tourism tax money for infrastructure, we'd probably be using it for our streets. I can't support this. ... If a bridge isn't infrastructure, I don't know what is," Fosle said.
While David Montgomery, Duluth's chief administrative officer, agreed that the pedestrian bridge qualifies as infrastructure, he referred to it as "very heavily tourist-related infrastructure."
Montgomery explained that tourism tax collections are to be earmarked for projects that are fundamentally tourism-related.
"We spend those dollars on promotional activities, on tourist attractions like Spirit Mountain and the aquarium, things of that nature, and also on capital projects that have a tourist-related component to them. So we've spent money on the Lakewalk, we've spent some up at Enger Tower and things of that sort," he said.
Montgomery said he believes the pedestrian lift bridge that spans Minnesota Slip fits into the same category.
"We look at the Minnesota Slip bridge - or the blue bridge - as being very directly related in a big way to tourism, as a primary link between Canal Park and the DECC," he said.
Montgomery noted that repeated bridge breakdowns have caused headaches for the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, causing it to lose business.
In 2015, the pedestrian lift bridge was rendered mechanically inoperable for 32 days, not including a few additional days when it had to close because of high winds.
"I think it's embarrassing for Duluth to have visitors in town - or even for our locals - to have a key connection that you just don't know if it will work or not," said Dan Russell, the DECC's executive director.
Fosle asked Montgomery if he thought tourism tax dollars could be used to pay for work on the Aerial Lift Bridge as well.
"I think the Aerial Lift Bridge is a different animal. It is fundamentally for transportation purposes on and off Canal Park," responded Montgomery, noting that it predates Duluth's emergence as a regional tourist destination.
For those reasons, Montgomery said, the Aerial Lift Bridge would not be a good candidate for tourism tax funding.
"People will incidentally view it as a tourist attraction per se, but the operation and purpose of the bridge itself is for basic transportation and shipping, as well, he said.
As for the idea of using tourism tax dollars more liberally, to cover the local transportation network, Montgomery said the city generally shies away from spending the funds on streets because they qualify as tourism-related infrastructure only in a "remotely tangential" manner.
At Large City Councilor Noah Hobbs asked if a road in front of a hotel wouldn't qualify as tourism-related infrastructure. "It seems, at least to me, we could tie that to tourism," he said.
Montgomery said the city tends to take a narrower view.
"Because this city attracts something like 4 million visitors per year, many folks arguably will say that almost everything we do in this city is tourism-related. But you have to have a fairly direct connection for tourism tax, as being directly attributable to tourist activities, and we don't view the basic road infrastructure as being directly tourism-related. It's fundamental to the basic operation of your city," he said.
In contrast, Montgomery said: "The Minnesota Slip Bridge is heavily tied directly to tourism, and if we didn't have that connection with the DECC, there would have been no need to have that bridge in the first place. So that's the distinction we make. There aren't that many bright lines in that distinction, and it's a grade. But we can tell you things that are absolutely no-question 'no,' and we can tell you the things that are no-question 'yes.' If you get in the middle, it gets a little gray, but in this case we think the blue bridge is tied very directly to tourist activity both for the DECC and Canal Park."
Fosle asked if the city could face repercussions for misuse of tourism tax funds.
In response, Montgomery said: "We're required under state statute to utilize these funds for tourism-related activities. I think if we had a pattern of not using these funds in that way we could potentially lose our taxing authority that generates the tourism taxes. But we're confident internally, and we're confident here that this fits that definition."
By an 8-1 vote, with Fosle dissenting, the Duluth City Council ultimately approved using $500,000 in leftover tourism tax funding for the pedestrian bridge this year, with equal distributions to be made through 2021.
Next year, Duluth projects it will collect about $11.7 million in tourism taxes, generated from local hotel/motel stays and sales of food and drink.