The Duluth City Council could put to rest Monday talk of selling a pair of historic Tiffany stained-glass windows now on public display at the Depot.
Or, alternatively, councilors could keep the debate alive by asking city staff to continue efforts to explore a sale of the windows, as Duluth searches for solutions to address an anticipated $25 million budget shortfall arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
"One of the things we have done at the council's request and certainly as we have worked through the budget issues associated with COVID-19 is to look at all of our options for assets that the city has," Chief Administrative Officer Noah Schuchman said.
The City Council will take up two competing resolutions, both introduced by city administration: one in support of looking to sell the windows and another instructing it to stand down on the idea.
Councilor Joel Sipress questioned the late additions to the agenda at a Thursday evening meeting.
"It's very unusual for the city administration to put two resolutions on our agenda — both city proposals that are contradictory — particularly on an item of this great public controversy," he said.
"The last time a mayor proposed doing this was during the last financial crisis back in 2009, and at that time, the City Council sent a really clear message to not sell the Tiffany windows, especially after it was determined they were not worth nearly as much as had been suggested," Sipress said.
Previous estimates placed the windows' value at $1 million to $3 million, but that was revised downward, and the pair of windows designed by artist Ann Weston, formerly of Duluth, are now insured for a total of just $250,000.
Sipress asked if city administration had a position on the idea of selling the windows. "Or is the position of the administration that they don't care one way or the other, and they're just going to throw this to the council for guidance?"
Mayor Emily Larson had earlier suggested the city look at selling some of its assets, including the windows, as a means to help fill the city's budget gap. But Schuchman said Thursday he could not speak to her current position on the windows.
Schuchman said that continuing to pursue a sale would require a great deal of legwork, as the windows had previously been designated local heritage preservation landmarks.
"If we were to choose to look at selling these, the amount of staff work that it would take to get to that point would be substantial, time-consuming and would take us away from other things that we are doing, both COVID-related and budget-related," he said.
In response to a question from at large Councilor Zack Filipovich about the way city administration is handling the issue, Schuchman said: "It has been explicitly clear from you and from your colleagues that we are being asked to turn over every rock and look for every option to solve our budget holes and our budget problem, and we have been doing that.
"This is one of those things where we need to get a handle on this as an option, in terms of having a budget discussion," he said. "If that's not something the council is interested in, that is just fine, and we will spend our time in other places.."
At large Councilor Derek Medved thanked city administration for seeking the council's direction on the windows, which he called "a city treasure."
Medved predicted the windows would sell for only a fraction of their true value.
"In my mind, it's almost like going to the pawn shop with your grandmother's 100-year-old ring that is so valuable to your family and saying: 'Hey, what can I get for this?' And it's only 20 bucks," he said. "I just think that at a time like this, it's the completely wrong time to sell such a treasure."
Medved questioned whether the city would even have the right to sell the windows, given their landmark status. He also praised his council predecessors for designating them as such and making it difficult for the city to even once again consider a sale.