Duluth mayor proposes sales tax to pay for Wade Stadium repairs -- next year

Duluth Mayor Don Ness urged restraint Thursday from people who want to speed up the timeline for renovation of Duluth's Wade Stadium after an upper section of brick wall collapsed last week.

Wade Stadium
Duluth city worker Rob Hurd pulls off loose bricks from the section of wall at Wade Stadium that collapsed March 20, 2013. (Bob King /

Duluth Mayor Don Ness urged restraint Thursday from people who want to speed up the timeline for renovation of Duluth's Wade Stadium after an upper section of brick wall collapsed last week.

And Ness suggested that reinstating a recently expired half-percent food and beverage tax may be the best way for the city to pay for its portion of the proposed project.

The city had been seeking $250,000 in state money -- to be matched by $250,000 in city funds -- from the Minnesota Legislature for stadium renovation planning and design work. The plan was to go back to lawmakers next year to request money for construction work, initially estimated to cost $8 million to $12 million. But on March 20 a bowed section of wall at the 72-year-old stadium collapsed.

Councilors Jim Stauber and Garry Krause now want the city to seek not just the planning and design money but the full $4 million Duluth unsuccessfully requested from the state in 2012 to renovate the stadium. A resolution they plan to introduce at the council's next regular meeting Monday night would make funding to rebuild Wade Stadium the city's No. 1 bonding priority.

Stauber suggested the mayor was putting the interests of the NorShor Theatre ahead of the Wade. Earlier this month, three local legislators -- Reps. Tom Huntley, Mary Murphy and Erik Simonson -- introduced a bill that seeks $4.95 million in bond funding to improve public access to the theater by way of skywalk links and likely a new elevator.


In making the case for Wade last year, Stauber said Ness rightly described the risk of falling brickwork at the stadium as "a huge liability." Stauber argued the dire condition of Wade and public health risk it poses should make it a higher priority.

"If any bonding funds are available, they should go to Wade," Stauber said.

The mayor and his administration have every intention of advocating on behalf of Wade Stadium, said David Montgomery, Duluth's chief administrative officer. But he said engineering and design work will need to occur before any renovation. Even if bond funding for the Wade were approved this session, Montgomery said the city wouldn't be ready to commence renovation work until 2014, at best.

"We absolutely have a plan for Wade," Montgomery said. "This proposal is trying to create controversy where none exists."

In the interim, Montgomery offered assurances that steps will be taken to ensure that Wade remains a serviceable and safe venue for local baseball games this summer.

"We believe Wade Stadium is actually safer now than it was before, now that section of wall has fallen down," he said.

Stauber contends urgent repairs at Wade should not be put on a back burner and questioned whether Ness would allow his family members to go near the park's crumbling brickwork.

"If the mayor does not want to fix Wade, I hope the public and my colleagues on the council will convince him otherwise," Stauber said.


In an effort to respond, Ness called a press conference Thursday morning alongside Craig Smith, general manager of the Duluth Huskies minor-league baseball team, the stadium's primary tenants.

"Like many, my initial thought was, 'Does this provide an opportunity for us to go for the full funding during this legislative session?'" Ness said of the damage at Wade. "But as you get into the details and understand both the requirements the state has in order to fund the construction of a project such as this, as well as the work that's necessary for design purposes and meeting the timelines of our users of the stadium, it becomes clear that our current course of seeking planning and design dollars during this legislative session, and setting ourselves up for seeking construction dollars next year, is the appropriate course."


There's not a clear sense of what should and shouldn't be included in the renovations, Ness said. It's not "shovel-ready" and won't be until the summer of 2014, he said. And most of all, Ness said, the city needs time to figure out how to pay for the project. If the final estimate was $8 million, the city would seek $4 million from the state, and then have to match that amount on its own.

The city is not allowed to issue general obligation bonds for a parks project, Ness said, and he opposes tapping the city's community investment trust fund or general fund reserve. He doesn't want to raise property taxes either.

Ness said that leaves reinstating the half-percent food and beverage tax as a good option. He proposed putting the question to voters in a referendum this fall. And if voters support it, going to the Legislature next spring to both authorize the tax and seek funding for the stadium work.

That half-percent tax had been bringing in between $800,000 and $1 million a year before it expired last fall.

Smith voiced his support for Ness' more measured plan Thursday, saying, "It would be a shame if we rushed into things and didn't do it the right way the first time."


"We need to stay the course of the current planning that's going on and not make rash decisions and rush into things just because Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall," Smith said. "We're very supportive of what the city's trying to accomplish."

What To Read Next
Get Local