Plans to build a new paddle-sport park below Spirit Mountain encountered some turbulence Wednesday night, when the project failed to garner the support of the Duluth Parks and Recreation Commission.
By a 6-4 margin, commissioners voted down a motion to recommend approval of a site plan for the Lower Spirit Mountain Riverfront Park.
But in a letter to the Duluth City Council Thursday, Mayor Emily Larson indicated that despite the vote, she intends to bring the plan forward for council consideration later this month.
She wrote: "Councilors often take commission input but also have to factor in elements like needs for housing, encouraging economic development, expanding our tax base and meeting the outdoor recreation needs of residents - all within our city limits, and all in balance with one another. I believe this plan achieves that."
However, a number of people continue to question the need for the project, including Rich Staffon, president of the Duluth Chapter of the Izaak Walton League.
"Our main thing has been that Duluth has only so many natural areas left, and as we develop Duluth, we need to do the best we can to protect what's left of those first, because that's what makes Duluth so special and so attractive to visitors and also people living here," he said.
Staffon suggested nearby existing facilities at Indian Point Campground or Willard Munger Landing off Clyde Avenue might be better suited to provide paddlers access to the St. Louis River.
"They're already developed. They already have some amenities. Why not create a kayak/canoe landing at one of those places rather than create a whole new landing?" he asked.
Jim Filby Williams, Duluth's director of public administration, said the sheltered, low-traffic site proposed is uniquely suited, and the city has significantly scaled back its original plans in response to concerns raised.
"The message from the Planning Commission, the Parks Commission and citizens has been consistent. They would like us to strike a careful, complementary balance between environmental protection, river access and economic development. And we feel like this project is a tremendous win for the environment, river access and our western neighborhoods," he said.
Duluth City Councilor Em Westerlund, who serves as a non-voting member of the Parks Commission, agreed that project plans have shrunk as they evolved. "And that's all been in response to concerns from the public, which the administration and city staff heard and altered the plans accordingly," she said.
"For the environment, this is not something to feel ambivalent about. It's a triumph," Filby Williams said. "The plan acquires, restores and permanently protects - with the strongest protections available in city code - 32 acres of sensitive but degraded and completely unprotected riverfront.
"For folks who want to enjoy the river, the plan does minimally improve 2 acres of that 32 acres, as the city's first-and-only water access designed specifically for paddlers. It's also the first designed to be accessible for citizens with disabilities," he said.
"And for our western neighborhoods that want more and better housing and services, this access provides essential stimulus to what promises to be one of the most significant residential and commercial developments in memory for our far-western neighborhoods," said Filby Williams, referring to the proposed Kayak Bay development.
Staffon suggested the city's proposal catered more to the developer than to area residents.
"It was really driven from the top down. It wasn't what the local people wanted. It was kind of something that the city and the developers have been pushing. I think that was the main rub with the local people there, that this wasn't coming from them," he said.
Mike Casey Jr., a Smithville resident, said: "This isn't a park plan. It's a development plan. This is a park plan that helps support a development, and we're not so sure that's what parks are for."
Eric Larson, who works with Courage Kenny to get people with disabilities active outdoors, contends installing a universal paddle launch like the one proposed is "the right thing to do."
"Recreation is a human need," he said. "This is a social justice issue, and offering people an opportunity to be fully involved in their community in ways they wish to be is something we should all strive for. "