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After months of work, renovated Gateway Tower unveiled in full

Gateway Tower Apartments at Sixth Avenue West and Superior Street in Duluth was rededicated Wednesday after months of renovations. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 6
Pamela Blommer, a resident at Gateway Tower, says she considers the people living there her family. She also likes the new look and other changes to the building, and had high praise for the construction crew that helped put away her canned goods when she was moved around the building during construction. She was speaking Wednesday at an event to rededicate the downtown Duluth building after a major renovation project. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 6
Nancy Atzen, a Gateway Tower resident, applauds one of the speakers during Wednesday's rededication event. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 6
Jeff Corey, executive director at One Roof Community Housing, speaks at the rededication of Gateway Tower apartments Wednesday. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 6
Gateway Tower has a new children's play area. Bob King / 5 / 6
Visitors to Gateway Tower in downtown Duluth on Wednesday take a look around one of the newly renovated apartments. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com6 / 6

A packed rededication ceremony Wednesday at Gateway Tower Apartments featured a nine-batter lineup of speakers — commentary in itself about the number of agencies required to come together to save the downtown Duluth complex.

"Only in Duluth," said Warren Hanson, president of the St. Paul-based Greater Minnesota Housing Fund, which secured more than two-thirds of the $18.5 million needed for the reconstruction project.

An hour of anecdotes and appreciations brought together bits of the building's history since it opened in 1974 as a home mostly for people of lower means and people with disabilities. A parallel tale emerged about how it was revitalized across the past 10 months of reconstruction — a period of complex financing and logistics for planners and loud noises and upheaval for residents.

"Without your patience it would have been a lot harder," said Jeff Corey, addressing a multitude of residents in the audience. The executive director of One Roof Community Housing, Corey's moon-landing of a project found his proud parents in attendance Wednesday.

"We're ecstatic with the changes we made to the building both inside and out," Corey added.

The renovation included several major upgrades, including a new heating system, sprinkler system, upgraded elevators, energy-efficient windows and siding, and a complete renovation of the apartments.

Mayor Emily Larson, hitting third in the speaking lineup, called the revitalized 14-story, 150-unit facility "preservation of critical affordable housing."

"I'm proud of the community for saying, 'We're not letting this go,' " she said.

When it was over, Dick Peterson joined the others in a self-guided tour of a pristine new one-bedroom apartment.

"I'm impressed," said Peterson, who is on the board of trustees with First United Methodist Church (aka the "copper-top church"), which originated Gateway Tower more than 40 years ago and was the longtime owner of the building. Larson spoke about how the church ultimately couldn't afford the much-needed remodel, but wanted to see its mission continued.

"My mother lived here for 17 years," said Peterson, recalling her time fondly.

The project wasn't without a series of complications, including multiple thefts of construction supplies and equipment, the termination of the site's first new management firm, a 150,000-gallon water leak during construction and, most poignantly, a loss of $700,000 in federal funding based on a discrepancy over what exactly was entailed in lead abatement.

"We could have pointed fingers," was a common refrain from the speakers, who instead told about how the team congealed and solutions prevailed at every turn.

For Pamela Blommer and her dog Cinder, hopscotching between three apartments before settling on the first floor was worth it.

"It's the best apartment I've ever had in my life," said Blommer, who called the Gateway Tower community her family.

Another resident, Mahogany Johnson, said, "I'm a believer. I believe in God. This is a blessing."

The new-look apartments weren't without critics. Half seemed to like the blue-patterned exterior, while the other half, Larson and others said, were lukewarm at best about the modern design. Johnson also said she planned to ask about a lack of equipment so far in a shared fitness area.

But all in all, it was mission accomplished.

"We knew it would be devastating for the city if we lost the units," said Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Jill Keppers, whose agency once prevented foreclosure on the complex and has since taken over management of the property, while Center City Housing Corp. retains ownership.

Center City is contracting with Life House and the Human Development Center to provide support services to residents, including a second floor dedicated to up to 11 previously homeless young people.

Center City executive director Rick Klun said 11 units seemed like both a lot and not enough given the problem with homelessness in the city. Nonetheless, saving Gateway Tower prevented the even larger issue that losing 150 units would have created.

Said Klun, "It's a very happy day."