Mayor tackles disparities in State of the City Address
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson rolled out a number of new initiatives, programs and positions Monday night as she delivered her fourth "State of the City Address" at Myers-Wilkins Elementary School.
Larson, who will seek a second term, freely acknowledged much work remains to be done on at least four key fronts: affordable housing, access to child care, improved job opportunities and efforts to address climate change.
While Larson has welcomed the development of nearly 1,000 additional housing units during her mayoral tenure, she said: "We have failed to solve the puzzle of affordable housing." She called the current scarcity of such housing "a crisis" that hurts the city in many ways.
"When people are not safely housed, their health suffers. Housing uncertainty harms children and impacts our schools," Larson said, noting that, "On any given night, hundreds of people in Duluth have no home, and hundreds more worry if they'll have one next week."
She announced that soon the city will launch a contest called "Rebuild Duluth," offering up 10 to 15 parcels of land free of charge to developers who come forward with viable plans to construct affordable housing on the sites.
Larson said the city also will jointly fund a new housing developer position with help from the Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority to move the housing needle.
Additionally, Larson plans to work with City Council President Noah Hobbs to assemble an affordable-housing task force that will be asked to develop what she called "a long-term, dedicated funding mechanism to address our affordable housing crisis."
Larson described an urgent need to improve the availability of child care, as well, citing a recent report that found St. Louis County families have about 2,600 children who would benefit from increased care options.
"The economic cost of this shortage is immense — employers lose millions of dollars in lost productivity and families lose thousands in wages," she said, noting that children are too often denied "a healthy start in life" as a result.
Larson announced Duluth's 1200 Fund aims to develop a low-interest loan program that could help cover the startup costs for home-based child care providers.
Larson said she also has directed Chief Administrative Officer Noah Schuchman "to engage the county, state, school district and other community partners around jointly creating a downtown child care center for children of public employees and low-income downtown workers."
Despite recent low unemployment rates in Duluth, Larson said: "Disparities persist along racial lines, with African-American and Native American residents four times more likely to be excluded from a job."
"For my white friends in this audience — this racial disparity is our problem. If these statistics were about our families, if this dynamic of economic inequality were impacting our kids, we would be screaming from a mountaintop," she said.
Larson announced that the city is working with local trade organizations to fill a need for more construction workers and provide better economic opportunities for disadvantaged workers.
"On every significant construction project the city financially supports, we are now creating career pathways for women and others facing structural disadvantages that block their opportunities for work and career," she said.
Larson said Duluth's CareerForce Center will partner with health care employers, educational institutions and members of the hospitality industry to connect more people with well-paying jobs.
Larson reported the city will achieve its goal of trimming greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent during her first term as mayor. She also predicted that by 2020, as the city's district heating plant is converted from steam to a closed-loop hot water system, the overall carbon reduction will more than double.
By 2050, Larson aims to slash the city's carbon emissions by 80 percent and called the recent progress "a downpayment on our commitment."
But Larson contends the city must do more and said she will ask the City Council to authorize the creation of a new sustainability officer position "to coordinate across city departments and build the community will and partnerships needed to develop, implement and monitor progress on a comprehensive energy and sustainability strategy for Duluth."
She pointed to recent events as evidence of the need for action.
"Climate change is pounding our city now. It's not some future threat. We saw its effects these past two Octobers when massive storms wreaked havoc across Duluth and twice took out the Lakewalk," Larson said.
She stressed the need for action, saying: "We saw the very real effects of climate change in 2012, when we suffered over $100 million in flood damage. We can't put this off for a more convenient time."
Larson said the city is ready to do its part by reducing its own carbon emissions, but municipal operations account for only about 6 percent of Duluth's total carbon footprint.
"It's time this becomes a community-wide commitment," she said, pledging that the city and its utilities will work with local businesses and residents to help them improve energy efficiency and shift their reliance increasingly to renewable resources.
"Together — for it will truly take all of us — we can rise to meet this challenge," Larson said.