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Duluth searches for new flag

Nick Sunsdahl holds the "Tilt-Town flag" he designed as he stands in front of City Hall on Wednesday. Tyler Schank /

Mayor Emily Larson put out a call for people to submit a fresh design for the city of Duluth's official flag this week, explaining the current municipal banner no longer measures up, in her eyes.

"It doesn't tell a very clear story of who we are. It's an image that not many people are familiar with. It doesn't pop at you with any sense of identity. It isn't something that people have a specific reverence for," she said.

Larson views Duluth's seldom-seen flag as a missed chance.

The city of Duluth's current flag."A flag actually becomes a transformational image upon which you can build a stronger identity. So, we have an opportunity for community members to submit what they think would make good elements in a flag, whether it's reflecting our natural world or our history, telling a fuller story of who we are," she said.

During a community meeting at Denfeld High School on Wednesday night, Larson outlined the process by which the city aims to create a new flag with help from a volunteer committee and members of the community planning department.

Erik Torch, a member of that citizen review committee, acknowledged that designing a city flag may seem like an act of whimsy but he said: "It's a symbol that people can gather meaning from and that can demonstrate civic pride and civic connection. Those things are really important."

The city will accept proposed designs until April 12, and the final proposed design is then to be determined by the volunteer committee with input from Larson. When the process is complete, the new flag design will go to the Duluth City Council for consideration this summer.

But at least one aspiring local flag designer said he's inclined to reluctantly sit out the selection.

'Tilt Town' flag

Nick Sunsdahl said he has been intrigued by vexillology — the study of flags — since fourth grade.

When he read in the Duluth News Tribune last summer that the city was looking to revamp its flag as part of its Imagine Duluth 2035 initiative, Sunsdahl sprang to action. He created a three-color design for what he calls the "Tilt Town" flag — a nod to musician Paul Metsa's nickname for Duluth.

Sunsdahl drew inspiration from the simple geometric design of nautical flags and worked with a palette of green, blue and white — colors which play prominently in the city's current flag.

"I thought, 'Let's not rock the boat.' Green, blue, white — those are great colors. They're also the universal colors of peace," he said.

A green triangle on the left of his flag illustrates Duluth's hillside, intersecting with a blue base representing Lake Superior, topped by a white band reflecting the region's winter weather and the glaciers that shaped the local landscape.

Sunsdahl teaches industrial arts at the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School and said he avoided the use of local structural landmarks, such as the Aerial Lift Bridge, in part out of respect for the area's indigenous history prior to European settlement.

Sunsdahl printed up 500 stickers featuring his design, which are now in circulation throughout the community.

Jason Wussow, owner of Beaner's Central Coffeehouse, said the stickers have proven popular with his customers and reported frequently selling several per day.

"I think it's great. It's fun. It's simple. Everyone comments on it. It's definitely catching people's attention," Wussow said.

"So many designs just get cluttered, but this is just so simple and clean. It's such a perfect thing — the sky, the grass, the lake. For not much going on, it says a lot," he said.

Sunsdahl said his flag seems to resonate with locals.

"I have had a lot of interest and a lot of support. So, the whole campaign is even a little bit beyond my doing at this point, because a lot of people have liked the design," he said.

Yet Sunsdahl likely won't send his design to the city, explaining he is particularly concerned about a notice on the submission form that reads: "All entries become property of the city of Duluth, and the author relinquishes all rights to the design. Additionally, the city reserves the right to modify and/or combine designs to create the official city of Duluth flag."

Cold feet

Sunsdahl said he's fine relinquishing any claim to his flag, but he doesn't want to see it altered.

"The whole point of this was to have it be the city flag. So, I designed this, and I would love for the city to run with it. But what happened was, when the city designed their little contest, they put in these words, where they reserve the right to change the flag by committee. And that was kind of the whole point — that we didn't want to design a flag by committee," he said.

Sunsdahl said he's not interested in self-enrichment but wants to maintain the integrity of his design.

"The last thing I want is for them to take this 'Tilt Town' flag and put the goddamn Lift Bridge on it, because I could totally see them doing that. It just makes me sick to my stomach," he said.

"If that's what they want to do... No thank you, because this is the people's flag, and if so, I'm going to hold onto the rights to that to ensure this flag goes to the people," he said.

Rather than risk having his design transformed into what he called a "Frankenstein flag," Sunsdahl said he's prepared to share it directly with the public for anyone to use.

"We don't really need the city administration's blessing to fly a flag. This is America. We have a First Amendment right to fly the 'Tilt Town' flag and say, 'This is the people's flag."

Point taken

Torch said he understands Sunsdahl's concern and noted that city staff have mostly been responsible for putting together the selection process.

"I think we do want to honor the integrity of the designers. I think that's a fair critique of the process and maybe something that the city maybe has to think about," Torch said.

Torch said he shares Sunsdahl's disdain of a Frankenstein design, embodied by Milwaukee's busy and often-scorned flag, which drew elements from multiple sources.

"We don't want to go down that road. You always have to be worried about design by committee," Torch said.


Click here to learn more about how to submit a design for Duluth's city flag.