It took five special sessions, but the Minnesota Legislature finally passed a bonding bill Thursday afternoon. That legislation will provide some sorely needed funding to fix seawalls in Duluth and armor much of the city's shoreline with boulders.
In all, the bonding bill earmarks $13.5 million for seawall and related surface improvements along Duluth's waterfront.
"The city of Duluth is very grateful to our legislative delegation for their persistence and hard work in delivering support for a project that is at once exciting and badly needed," said Jim Filby Williams, Duluth's director of properties, parks and libraries.
"This funding support will enable us to reconstruct two vitally important sections of coastal infrastructure along our waterfront, and that infrastructure does two really important things for us," he said. "One, it protects public and private property from the battering of the lake — a battering that has thoroughly gotten the better of our existing infrastructure, such that without these funds we would be much more vulnerable to coastal storm damage."
"The second thing that this coastal infrastructure does for us is to provide public access to our extraordinary waterfront and thereby fuels our powerful tourism economy — a tourism economy that is going to need a boost in the years ahead after this difficult pandemic year," Filby Williams said.
A seawall from near Minnesota Slip behind the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center to Bayfront Festival Park will be repaired. Meanwhile, several vulnerable sections of shoreline between Canal Park and the Beacon Pointe development at 21st Avenue East will be bolstered and hardened with boulders.
District 7B Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, who also serves as House majority whip, said she was very pleased to send a bipartisan bill forward to the Senate. She noted that the bonding bill had passed by a resounding 100-34 margin after 10 hours of discussion. A bonding bill requires a supermajority, support by at least three-fifths of the Legislature, to advance.
"It's been a long time coming," Olson said. "It's one of the best things we can do to rebound from the economic downturn we're in, due to the pandemic. It invests in critical infrastructure projects right here in Duluth, and it will create jobs."
Olson also noted a few other large Northland projects:
- $6.75 million for a combined heat and power system at the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District.
- $4.4 million to renovate A.B. Anderson Hall on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus.
- $3 million for Duluth's Grassy Point Bridge.
- $1.37 million for the St. Louis County Regional Behavioral Health Crisis facility.
- $1 million for the Depot.
- A yet-to-be-determined sum to clean up a Superfund site at a former Duluth dump.
- $204,000 for the Lake Superior Zoo.
"This is a huge investment in Minnesota's future and the ability to overcome the economic downturn," Olson said. "This is $1.9 billion being put right into Minnesota's infrastructure, and that means good-paying jobs at a time when our bond ratings are really good.
"So, this is a good time to be borrowing this money, instead of letting our roads and bridges crumble further and being more expensive to repair in the future," she said, noting that interest rates, too, are at very low levels. "This is the time to act."
Filby Williams said he expects work on Duluth's seawalls to begin next year, but he noted that normally the city would have received notice of bond funding months earlier, and therefore project preparations are not as advanced as they would typically be by now.
In addition to the state bonding funds to shore up the city's seawalls, Filby Williams noted that the city has applied for federal aid that would extend the scope of the project by including improvements that would "enable cruise ships and other deep-draft boats to moor along that seawall to help realize the long-standing opportunity to make Duluth a cruising destination."
As for the eastern portion of the shoreline work that will be funded through the bonding bill, Filby Williams said: "This work complements and completes the FEMA-funded disaster repair work that we have already begun very visibly downtown."
While the Federal Emergency Management Agency helped repair sections of the Lakewalk that were substantially destroyed by repeated storms, Filby Williams noted that "significant additional portions of the Lakewalk suffered lesser harm and are vulnerable over time to the same kind of complete destruction."
"So, this will enable us to protect all of our Lakewalk infrastructure from storm damage and upgrade the entire Lakewalk to this new standard, with a wider, freshly constructed, ADA-accessible trail and in some places, a wider footpath," he said.
The bonding bill also contains funding to restart correctional facilities in Willow River and Togo.