Mayor Emily Larson delivered her "State of the City" address to an unusually empty venue in the Duluth City Hall's reception room Monday evening. The event moved online this year, as the city continues to shy away from in-person gatherings due to the risk of the COVID-19 virus spreading. Last year, Larson postponed and eventually canceled her speech for the same pandemic reason.
To date, Larson reported the coronavirus has claimed the lives of 145 Duluth residents.
"Each one leaves a gaping hole in our hearts, in our lives and in the fabric of our community," she said. "We did not all suffer equally, but all of us experienced pain."
During her speech, Larson announced several new investments and initiatives made possible, in large part, thanks to more than $60 million in federal aid the city expects to receive through the American Rescue Plan.
Larson laid out plans to invest $2 million of that money in a housing trust fund tasked with increasing Duluth's supply of quality affordable housing. She expects those dollars can be used to leverage additional support.
"Our initial goal will be $4 million, and we intend to grow that even bigger," she said.
Larson proposes to spend another $1 million in relief funding to incentivize additional broadband providers to enter the Duluth market, which she noted is currently captive to a single company.
"Right now, Spectrum is the only broadband provider in Duluth. They know it, and your bills show it. Spectrum even raised prices in a pandemic," she said.
"This is unacceptable. Personally, I feel it's immoral," said Larson, as she announced that bringing additional competition to the market would be "a top priority for my term."
During the pandemic, Larson noted that access to technology has become increasingly important. She praised the efforts of the CareerForce Center, LISC and other community partners to launch the Duluth Digital Inclusion Initiative, a group that's raised more than $1 million since May 2020 — money that's been used to distribute 6,800 computers and 1,000 Wi-Fi hotspots.
Larson said the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis Police last year has heightened awareness of racial injustice around the nation, including in Duluth. She recalled Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken's reflections on the taint of the incident on law enforcement everywhere. He said: "In a day, we went from heroes to zeroes."
Larson announced plans to collect and analyze race data for all criminal cases referred to the city attorney's office, with an eye toward detecting instances of "implicit or systemic racism."
She also said the Duluth Police Department will conduct a top-to-bottom racial bias audit.
In an effort to determine law enforcement deficiencies and ensure the use of best practices, Larson announced the police department will seek to become the first force in the state to win accreditation from CALEA — the Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies — calling that credential "the platinum standard" for "policing rooted in community trust."
On the environmental front, Larson said the city will continue its push to become what she called "the greenest city in the country."
She noted the city already has made progress, reducing emissions by nearly 20% "across all sectors but transportation" since 2017. Larson also pointed out that the local steam plant has shifted away from burning coal and has invested in a closed-loop hot water system that cut energy waste in half.
Moving forward, Larson aims to see more of the city's power needs met by renewable energy sources.
"My goal, and I'm confident we'll achieve it, is for Duluth to have a large-scale solar array in the next three years," she said.
Larson announced she will direct Duluth Sustainability Officer Mindy Granley to assemble "a new citywide Sustainable Duluth Task Force, comprised of businesses, unions, citizen groups, energy companies, along with the county and schools." She said that body will be asked to map out a plan "that we can work on together to make a sustainable and economically vibrant Duluth."