Downtown Duluth celebrates 25 years since its rebirth

These may not be the brightest days for downtown Duluth, given that 2009's retail forecast is the worst in decades, but it could look much worse if not for a stream of visionaries over the past few decades.

Clean and Safe Team
Brian Pehl sweeps up trash downtown Wednesday. Downtown property owners agreed to tax themselves in part so a crew, now known as the Greater Downtown Council's Clean & Safe Team, could be hired to do things like picking up trash and helping out tourists and downtown business owners. [Amanda Hansmeyer /]

These may not be the brightest days for downtown Duluth, given that 2009's retail forecast is the worst in decades, but it could look much worse if not for a stream of visionaries over the past few decades.

Rewind through the last 25 years of downtown development and you'll see a new downtown sprouting thanks to the grit, gumption and largesse of local residents.

While the money came from both private and public sectors, the Greater Downtown Council, which turns 25 years old this year, helped move those visions and dollars into concrete improvements to the downtown, said local business owners.

"I sure get a ton of positive feedback from visitors to our downtown who say what we have is very unique and special and alive," said Rick Heimbach, a fourth-generation owner of Bagley & Co. Jewelers China & Gifts and former Downtown Council board member.

The council was formed by the merger of the Duluth Downtown Development Corp. and the Downtown Business and Professional Association.


The organization's goal has always been downtown improvement.

"It pulls everybody together. It's a real organizer and a voice for the downtown," Heimbach said.

The goal 25 years ago was to breathe new life into the downtown area, said board members around during its inception.

"Downtowns were dying all over the place," said Bill Miller, who served as the council's chairman from 1989 to 1991. "I think the greatest thing the GDC does is keep intact this notion that the downtown is a unique downtown area," Miller said.

After Miller Hill Mall was built, there were fears downtown Duluth would empty out and die. To help keep that from happening, the city and business owners began a massive face-lift, said former council board members.

"We were looking kind of shabby," Heimbach said, before the downtown brick and street lighting program. By this time, many of the larger retailers like Glass Block had migrated from downtown to Miller Hill Mall.

"That started the renaissance of downtown Duluth," said Susan Beasy Latto, the first director of marketing and public relations for the council.

While the council worked with the city on projects like storefront renovations, Fitger's reopened as a shopping center, and Canal Park slowly transitioned from an old manufacturing locale to a steady stream of hotels and shops.


One of the major early downtown projects the city and newly formed council teamed up on, Miller said, was repaving the downtown with bricks to help give downtown more of a pedestrian-friendly feel.

The council worked to get the city to allow diagonal parking on Superior Street, which created more spaces, and developed the first skywalk signage as the system gradually grew.

The skywalk system, developed over the past three decades, allowed stores to offer some of the advantages of indoor shopping that malls offered. And it helped downtown business better compete against big-box stores where customers can park right outside and walk in.

Over the years, the council helped beef up the promotions and offerings of downtown sales events like Sidewalk Days, introducing entertainment such as live music, Latto said.

Former board members also worked hard to make sure that when the Interstate 35 extension was completed in 1992, it helped link downtown to the lake instead of dividing it, Latto said.

Special Service Area

Probably the council's single biggest effort this decade was when nearly five years ago it received Duluth City Council approval for a business improvement district from Mesaba Avenue to 10th Avenue East and from Second Street to Canal Park.

That service area, which will come before the Duluth City Council later this year for renewal, requires that the 526 downtown properties pay between $200 and $8,000 annually for the improvement and safety of the downtown district.


"It took us a huge step forward in our community," said Kristi Stokes, executive director of the Greater Downtown Council. "We needed more gas in our tank."

Until the creation of what's called the Duluth Downtown Waterfront District, the only funding stream the council received was voluntary membership donations from downtown businesses.

The $500,000 in annual funding provided money for the Clean & Safe Team, which employs between five and 15 people depending on the time of year.

In 2008 alone, the team collected 16,985 pounds of trash on the streets and skywalks, removed graffiti in 274 spots and helped out downtown pedestrians 5,968 times.

In addition, money also goes toward beautification efforts like flowers, holiday lighting, trash cans and signs.

"If it is a clean and safe environment and people see it that way, their comfort level with shopping downtown, going to events downtown, improves," said Roger Wedin, who was on the council's board during the 1990s.

While Stokes is cautiously optimistic about its passage again, the first time around wasn't an easy sell, she said.

"We didn't do it without critics," she said. Ultimately, a majority of property owners backed it, Wedin said. Stokes hopes the results of the past five years will show it's worth renewing, she said.


If Heimbach is any indication, it shouldn't be that difficult a sell.

"The special service district, although it's quite an additional expense, I'd sure rather have our downtown in a position it is today, than when we started this thing," Heimbach said.

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