Bell, Ness offer views on economic development, job creation

The News Tribune sat down with Duluth mayoral candidates Charlie Bell and Don Ness recently in separate interviews and asked them the same questions on various topics. In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 election, we will run question-and-answe...

The News Tribune sat down with Duluth mayoral candidates Charlie Bell and Don Ness recently in separate interviews and asked them the same questions on various topics. In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 election, we will run question-and-answer stories giving each candidate's responses.

Today's topic is economic development and job creation in Duluth.

Q: What can the city, and specifically the mayor, do to encourage economic development in Duluth?

Charlie Bell

A: Well, first of all, communicate with our existing businesses. We need to talk to them, to discuss what challenges they might have, because we want our existing businesses to be more successful and to expand. It's a known fact that 80 percent of new jobs come from existing businesses. That's first and foremost. And rightfully so, because they live here and they pay their taxes.


The next thing that we need to do is solve our financial problems, because if we're going to try to attract businesses here, we're not going to attract them if we have financial problems. So I think that's paramount.

Another aspect to economic development is actually dealing with the crime, the issues in our neighborhoods and on our streets, because we're getting headlines that we haven't gotten before, and we need to deal with that.

After that, then I think we start investing into our neighborhoods and make our neighborhoods more kid- and citizen-friendly, and protect them and make them safer. We look at so many of the things we can do, but I think those are the major ones.

Don Ness

A: We have a large number of very competent and energetic economic development agencies in Duluth and in the area, and they're all putting forth effort and looking for opportunities. ... But I don't get the sense that there's a lot of teamwork and cooperation and communication between those agencies, and I think that needs to happen.

Second, I think city government should -- with recognition that there are these agencies that have specific expertise in economic development areas -- take a step back on ... economic development and focus on the core services that the city provides that are necessary and important in promoting development. For example, instead of having the city put resources into the attraction of jobs to our area, let's instead put those resources into making sure that our permitting and inspection process is efficient and customer-friendly, as well as making sure that we can remove, to the extent possible, the divisive politics from the process when developers and folks that want to bring jobs to town have to engage city government, in particular at the council level.

And then the third area that I'm really excited about: I think that we can create a true sustainable, competitive advantage over the communities that we're competing with by investing in a comprehensive work-force system. Right now we have a strategy group of educators and employers and work-force folks that are saying: "How can we connect the dots between the specific needs, talent and skill needs of our employers in town, with the skills and talents of the graduates that are graduating from our local institutions and coming out of high school?" And by being very deliberate about providing the training to career paths for individuals that want to stay in Duluth and want to create better lives for themselves, giving them that path. And then there's tremendous benefit to all local employers because they're going to be able to draw from a more talented and skilled workforce.

Q: Do you have any ideas for economic development in specific areas of the city?


Don Ness:

A: Well, I think I'm more interested in developing industry clusters, versus targeting economic development in any one particular part of town. In particular, I think we need to continue investments in the aviation sector in Duluth. We have some wonderful assets, certainly a world-class runway that's under-utilized, the longest in Minnesota. We have some dynamic companies that are doing extraordinarily well in Cirrus and in Northstar Aerospace; Don Monaco and Monaco Air is contributing a lot of energy and enthusiasm in making a real investment in the infrastructure in that area.

Now, with the airbus base available to us, we have even greater opportunity to continue to grow that industry. We should continue to invest in those core industries, like aviation and health care and education.

From a neighborhood perspective, I believe in investing in neighborhood business districts and making sure we have mixed-use developments in the core of each of our traditional neighborhoods: West Duluth, Lincoln Park, Piedmont, Downtown, Kenwood, and Woodland and Lakeside. Those are opportunities to create real economic activity and growth in those areas and reintroduce convenience to consumers, so they don't feel like they need to go over the hill every time they want to buy something. They can find it either in our downtown or in our neighborhood districts. That keeps money in Duluth. We're also providing more entrepreneurship opportunities, because those are the places where the small, family-owned businesses thrive. So I'm a real believer in investing in those.

Charlie Bell

A: Not anything specific. I think you try and go develop a plan. It depends on how your plan is developed to where you go. For example, the U.S. Steel site has been empty for 30 years. We need to get that property and be able to develop it. We've got to get it first, so we do more industrial over there and light commercial in that area.

In the West End now because of the Heritage Center, we can build on that. That's rebuilding an older area of our city and that is essential to development of Duluth, as reinvesting into our areas that have dilapidated over the years.

Downtown we need to be maybe more specific and look at more retail and look at the housing starting to develop and at what their needs are to make it more viable for people to live downtown. So you concentrate and then you look at the health-care section and you don't know exactly where we're going to go with it, but we need to talk and sit down at the table with the health-care [community] and to find what they need for their expansion purposes.


And then you can go all the way up to the airport because of their expansion plans over the next 10, 12 years and talk to them and discuss how Duluth fits into what their needs are and how can we be a proponent for what they want to do?

Q: The Duluth Economic Development Authority is essentially the same body as the Duluth City Council. Would you recommend maintaining this or returning to the practice of having some non-government appointees to DEDA?

Charlie Bell

A: I absolutely want to change it, because it doesn't make sense that the same body has two different roles. It's not a good check and balance, actually. The City Council has ultimate authority anyway. So they have to approve anything that happens. But I think we need to tap the wisdom and skills and experience of our business community to help us foster and develop and nurture economic opportunities. They're the ones that really understand balance sheets, pro-formas, and we're asking too much of our city councilors. We're not looking at the other opportunity, and I thought it worked very well.

Don Ness

A: It's a tricky one, because there are some benefits in having DEDA and the council as one. In many ways it's because developers and those bringing projects to the city of Duluth, you're really reducing one of the hoops that they have to jump through. They have to educate one board about the benefit of their project and get that group to support the project. A lot of our hands are tied by state statute on this. They say that there's two standards that the states sets that really limit our effectiveness.

One is they say you need to have a majority of elected officials serving on your EDA [economic development authority] board. So, one way or the other you're going to have a majority that are city councilors serving on that board. And then you can have a minority of citizens if you want. And the second thing they require is that any project over a certain threshold needs to go to the City Council anyway. ... What happened in the past is that a project would come to DEDA and there'd be four councilors who were then in the know. The developer would spend a great amount of time and energy educating those four DEDA commissioners as well as the three private citizens on that project, get their buy-in, and then they were forced to go to the City Council, and in a lot of ways start that whole process over. The four councilors that heard it all before in DEDA were frustrated and just saying, this is a project that needs to go forward. The other five councilors -- the majority of the council -- has never heard this before.

Unfortunately, the result was oftentimes they become very defensive in saying, 'We don't want it to feel like this is being pushed down our throats.' They would go through this entire process of asking the same questions that DEDA commissioners had asked before. So I know that I've talked to developers who prefer this system because they have to educate one group of people, and they know that they can be confident that if they get the support of DEDA that they're also going to get support of the council. That said, I would love to find a way that we can introduce more business expertise into the economic development efforts in the city of Duluth and in DEDA.

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