The city of Duluth is embarking upon a lengthy and ambitious long-range master plan that should guide its development and management of parks and trails for the next decade.

Duluth’s last master plan was put together in 2010, and ideally, development of a new plan would have begun last year, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed back that schedule, said Jessica Peterson, manager of Duluth’s parks and recreation department.

Last spring, the city put out a request for proposals, seeking a consultant to help guide the process. It ended up hiring Design Workshop, a Colorado-based consulting firm with extensive experience helping cities around the world shape their park systems. Duluth will pay the firm $203,275 in consulting fees.

“Part of the advantage of having a group like them is that they bring a breadth of knowledge and experience about what other communities do, what’s successful, just different examples of what opportunities we could consider," Cliff Knettel, Duluth’s project lead, said. “We’re really excited to have them onboard."

Peterson said the plan will involve taking a cold, hard look at the city’s performance, and the previous master plan will serve as a bit of a yardstick.

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“The 2010 plan did call on our division and our city to take notice of the inequities of recreational amenities that did and didn’t exist in certain neighborhoods. And they significantly did not exist in the western St. Louis River corridor. So, that was the foundation then for the St. Louis River corridor initiative, which brought millions of dollars of park and trail amenities into the western part of our city,” she said.

A dedicated half-percent sales tax has gone to fund investments in Duluth’s St. Louis River Corridor for the past several years, but Peterson said the $18 million effort has not concluded.

“That work is still ongoing. It’s ambitious and really exciting work. We continue to plan and pursue funds to bring those projects full circle to implementation,” she said.

“This will give us an opportunity to step back and look at our park system as a whole and reassess where we are now, 10 years later," Peterson said. "What work have we accomplished that has addressed the equity issue and what still needs to be done? What facilities are in dire need of either maintenance or replacement? And where are we doing OK? Those are going to be some big and difficult questions that we’re all going to have to wrestle with."

She suggested the city remains far from the finish line.

“Equity is still an issue. We still have work to do on that. And it’s important for us to continue that process, even while acknowledging accomplishments and strides that have been made,” Peterson said.

The master plan also will delve into the financial resources dedicated to Duluth’s parks and recreation programs.

The 2010 plan proposed the creation of a special levy earmarked for the sustenance and development of Duluth’s park system.

That levy generates $2.6 million annually, but Peterson said the money doesn’t go as far as it did when first passed.

“The parks levy is capped at $2.6 million, and that was set in 2011. At the same time it included no escalator built into that. So, our purchasing power in 2021 is less than it was in 2011,” she explained.

The city’s parks fund has frequently been augmented by state and federal programs.

But while Duluth has enjoyed much success in pursuit of grant funding for a number of park projects, Peterson said "it's difficult to bank on grant funds which are always competitive and never guaranteed.”

Without outside support, she said the city would be hard pressed to manage, describing the current budget of the parks and recreation department as “inadequate.”

“We will have our work cut out for us in educating the community on what it is possible to provide with the budget that’s available to us. And if the community wants more, then we’ll need to have those difficult conversations about how we can make more possible by doing things differently or by exploring other budget options,” she said.

If the community has an appetite for further investments in its parks, additional taxes could be part of the equation.

“No doubt we will have conversations about funding sources and amounts as we move through this process,” Peterson said.

But Duluth is also looking at ways to cut costs, as she pointed out, offering a small example.

“We are starting to analyze where we do and don’t mow and reducing mowing when we can by perhaps converting areas to pollinator habitat for example. So, that I expect will also be part of the dialogue when it comes to our future financial picture,” Peterson said.

The city has enlisted a number of community partners to stretch its dollars further, as well, especially after falling on hard times.

The city parks and recreation department went from employing about two dozen people in the early 2000s to a staff of just six when the 2008 recession struck. It’s now back up to 14 people. Yet the city continues to lean heavily on supporters in the community.

“Duluth is fortunate to be a very philanthropic and volunteer-driven community. Many of our sports leagues and youth associations, etc., are made possible because of those volunteers. I don’t foresee that parks and rec would ever be in a position to pull all that back in house. But I think some of our community groups do a great job at what they’re doing,” Peterson said.

“So instead, what I’d like the conversation to look like is: What support, what foundational support might parks and rec be able to offer these organizations to continue doing the great work that they do on our public property, in our parks, for our local citizens, families, kids and visitors, too,” she said.

Knettel said community workshops will be held in late fall and early winter, with draft versions of the plan to be reviewed by mid- to late-winter.

Peterson said a final version of the plan should be ready for the city’s parks and recreation commission to approve by next summer.

Duluth has put together an advisory committee that includes city staff, park commission members, and several citizens, including members of city’s Indigenous and African Heritage commissions.

Peterson expects certain groups will be relatively easy to engage.

“We are fortunate in Duluth to have a very active and vocal user base. I think a lot of that is possible and happens because we have so many active user groups who are well-organized, know how to engage with us and generally we have great relationships with them and open communication lines,” she said.

Knettel said outreach will be required.

“We talked quite a bit about equity and inclusion, and that takes a lot of work, because we’re really focused on reaching out to folks and neighborhoods that are underserved, especially black and indigenous communities,” he said. “We’re looking at how we can engage those folks and those neighborhoods and continue to do so throughout the process."