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Duluth looks to protect Hartley Park, enhance Wade/Wheeler Athletic Complex

The Duluth City Council will consider nearly a $730,000 investment.

Hartley Park expansion.jpg

The Wade/Wheeler Athletic Complex could get a big makeover and more of what people consider Hartley Park may soon be formally dedicated as parkland.

The Duluth City Council will decide Monday whether to award a $729,600 contract to Johnson Wilson Constructors Inc., which tendered the lowest bid for a wide-ranging project that will bring improvements to the Wheeler Athletic Complex and a couple of nearby Little League baseball diamonds located behind Wade Stadium.

Plans call for new horseshoe pits and the renovation of athletic courts that accommodate basketball, tennis, bocce and pickleball. Improvements also will be made to make the athletic facilities and restrooms more accessible and compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. On the baseball/softball side, the project would replace five scoreboards, install new dugouts, improve field drainage and upgrade landscaping. New fencing and signs would be installed as well.

Proposed funding for the project would come in the form of a $250,000 Outdoor Recreation Grant from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, with the remainder of the tab to be paid using proceeds from a half-percent tourism tax dedicated exclusively for public facilities in Duluth's St. Louis River Corridor that support tourism and outdoor recreation.

Those tourism tax revenues have greatly diminished in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but Duluth already has the necessary funds for the work in hand, said Jim Filby Williams, director of the city's property, parks and library department.

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He explained that, with authorization from the Minnesota Legislature, Duluth borrowed $18 million in 2015 against the future revenues of the dedicated half-percent tax.

"Our CFO wisely set the debt service schedule for the half-and-half tax very conservatively, with the result that we've accumulated a debt service reserve," Filby Williams said. At a Thursday night agenda session meeting, he told councilors that reserve fund would be sufficient to service the debt for 30 months, even if tourist tax receipts dried up completely.

Hartley

For the first of two required readings, the Council also will take up a proposed ordinance change that would formally dedicate three city-owned parcels of land within Hartley Park as parkland. Depicted on the accompanying map, they include Lot A, which the city purchased from the Duluth School District in recent years; Lot B, which was donated by the Hartley Nature Center Corp.; and Lot C, which the city acquired in 1982 as part of a land-trade agreement with Residential Services of Northeastern Minnesota Inc.

"These three properties are, for all intents and purposes, functional, integral parts of Hartley Park and are perceived and used and enjoyed by our citizens as such," said Filby Williams. "In some ways they are unusually essential parts of the park, because they are the exclusive connections from important Duluth neighborhoods into the park."

"The former school district site is the singular connection to the Pleasantville or Woodland neighborhood. And the former RSI site on Arrowhead is the connection to the UMD community and Hunter Park. And the former Hartley Nature Center property is the connection to the Kenwood neighborhood and CSS (the College of St. Scholastica)," he said.

Filby Williams said that having the parcels formally dedicated as parkland will set "a higher bar" in the event that development of the property might ever be considered in the future โ€” namely a two-thirds vote of the Duluth Planning Commission and a three-fourths vote of the City Council.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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