Beginning this year, the Duluth City Council will honor a different local entrepreneur or business each month for their contributions to the community. That might not sound like a particularly controversial thing to do, but councilors remain divided on the idea, as evidenced by a 5-3 vote earlier this week to pass a resolution launching the new initiative.
At Large Councilors Arik Forsman and Derek Medved introduced the resolution to establish the Duluth Business and Entrepreneurship Award.
Forsman noted that the honor would be bestowed by a different city councilor each month, much as the city currently recognizes local artists.
“I think this is a really great chance for us to piggyback on the success of the Distinguished Artist Award and show that the City Council is recognizing the important contributions of businesses, entrepreneurs and groups that are associated with those within our community,” he said.
But 3rd District Councilor Roz Randorf shared her misgivings.
“It’s such a hard one, because I think the spirit of this is in the right place. I really do,” she said.
Yet, Randorf remains conflicted about the idea of singling out businesses.
“I think, how in the world would I choose one over another? And what is my criteria for doing that?” she asked. “In the end, even though my intentions are good, and in that moment it seems like just a well-spirited thing to do, I think of the potential for ill will for the folks who didn’t win.”
“I believe the spirit is right, but like my grandma said: ‘If you don’t have the recipe exactly right, adding a half a cup of sugar isn’t going to make it any better.’ I think we need to take a minute, take a deep breath, then do this and do it really well, because our businesses deserve it,” Randorf said, recommending that the honor be bestowed on individuals, rather than businesses.
Forsman said he understood Randorf’s concerns, but suggested the council would benefit from the greater flexibility it would enjoy if the award can be given to either an individual or a business entity. He noted that individual councilors could use their own judgment and act within their own comfort zones.
Medved agreed, saying: “It’s important that an entrepreneur can be individually honored, but as Councilor Forsman did mention, we could open it up for a business. So, I think on a case-by-case basis, per councilor, how they decide they’re going to use that recognition is going to be up to them individually.”
However, those assurances did not win over 2nd District Councilor Joel Sipress, who said: “I’m very much in support of the intent, but I share some of Councilor Randorf’s concerns.”
“It occurred to me that in the current form there is the danger that it could be perceived as favoritism, depending on how the award is granted. I think as a public body we need to be very very careful to avoid even the appearance of favoring certain business enterprises over others, particularly when they’re direct competitors,” he said.
Forsman stressed that the award is not meant to give anyone a competitive advantage.
“It’s not meant to provide a leg up one way or another,” he said
Forsman suggested the council approve the award and then evaluate it after a while.
“My preference would be to try it for a year. See if it works. And if we need to tweak it because of any concerns about ethics, I’m certainly open to having those discussions,” he said.
Yet another concern was raised by 5th District Councilor Janet Kennedy, who said: “As a woman of African heritage, I’m a little bit leery, looking at what businesses we have and how equitably we’re going to be able to share this award across our city.”
“There really aren’t that many businesses owned by black people or people of African heritage. I know there are a lot more entrepreneurs. So, I want to make sure that I’m not the only one looking for a black business to give this to, because that would be unfair to me,” Kennedy said.
Forsman said he talked to a number of local business people who supported the idea of creating an award to recognize the contributions of private sector enterprises.
“They were just excited the council is taking a step to be supportive of entrepreneurs and businesses,” he said.
Ultimately the council voted 5-3 in support of the award resolution, as written, with councilors Randorf, Sipress and Kennedy dissenting, and At Large Councilor Barb Russ absent.
A councilor rotation to bestow the new award should be established shortly.