The Duluth City Council signed off on an exhaustive list of prospective street repairs Monday night and also agreed to grant Minnesota Power’s request that the amount of public space in Lake Superior Plaza, which neighbors its corporate headquarters, be modestly reduced.
By an 8-1 vote, with 5th District Councilor Jay Fosle opposing it, the council passed a resolution approving a list of streets and bridges eligible to receive funding from a recently adopted half-percent sales tax. The new tax is expected to generate about $7 million annually, with the proceeds dedicated for street improvements.
Fosle expressed consternation that a significant portion of the taxes could be diverted to pay for infrastructure improvements in the city’s medical district — helping cover a legislative commitment Duluth made to provide a $10 million match in return for $98 million in state funding that will be provided in support of Essentia Health and St. Luke’s plans to invest a combined $1 billion in the area.
He suggested the public had been misled, saying: “My main concern is that the people voted on a referendum to have their streets fixed — like they’re looking at their own street — and I don’t see the money going there. I see it going to the St. Mary’s project and the medical district area.”
But Noah Schuchman, Duluth’s chief administrative officer, offered what he called “a point of clarification.” He said the city would need to dedicate $10 million in funding from its utility fund over the next 10 years for improvements to medical district infrastructure — including streets, water, steam and other utilities. Schuchman said that at most half of that money would come from the half-percent sales tax.
Schuchman also noted that where communities often are asked to match state funding on a dollar-for-dollar basis, Duluth has been asked to provide slightly more than a 10 percent match.
After reviewing the details, 2nd District Councilor Joel Sipress said he was “satisfied that this money will be spent in a way that’s consistent with the referendum.”
But he said: “I’m very disappointed in Mayor (Emily) Larson’s failure to clearly communicate with the public and with the council on this matter,” namely the nature of the required local match for state medical district funding.
Schuchman said: “The state is requiring us to do certain things. I think that’s an important thing to note. Ultimately the State Legislature passes bills that they put language into that we don’t get to control, and we need to work as a city to adapt.”
But he still characterized the funding package as “a tremendous win” for the council.
At Large Councilor Arik Forsman said: “I think this is in line with the referendum that was passed. But I think so much of what we’re discussing is that people at the end of the day just want to know when their road is going to be fixed and how much it’s going to cost. And I think there’s concern clearly that the medical district is going to eat into everybody else’s street being fixed.”
To deal with those concerns, Forsman encouraged city administration to exercise as much transparency and clear communication as possible.
All city streets were included in the list adopted Monday night. Click here to download the 64-page Street Improvement Program pdf.
Lake Superior Plaza
By an 8-0 vote, with Forsman abstaining, the Council also approved a resolution that would reduce the size of Lake Superior Plaza by about 20 percent, enabling Minnesota Power to improve security around its corporate headquarters by installing bollards and other landscaping that could prevent a vehicle from driving into the building. Forsman is employed by Minnesota Power.
Kathleen Spencer, a long-time resident of Duluth’s Central Hillside neighborhood, called for the council to deny the request, saying: “This is not about me, it’s not about my friends. But it is about the regular people’s right to have access to public spaces, and it’s a problem.”
She said stepped up security around Minnesota Power has made the plaza more difficult for people to use in recent years.
But several councilors said they had looked into the details of the proposed agreement and felt confident sufficient public access would be maintained.
Council President Noah Hobbs noted that the plaza is due for a redesign that will make it even more inviting to the public.
“We know that area has been a hotbed for First Amendment activity, and it will remain that,” he said.