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Duluth bridge lighting stirs debate

The city's decision not to light the Aerial Lift Bridge blue and gold draws criticism.

The Aerial Lift Bridge in pink
The Aerial Lift Bridge was lit up in pink, courtesy of the American Cancer Society, in October 2012 to call attention to a breast cancer 5K walk at Lake Superior College. In April 2020, the city stopped lighting the bridge for special occasions or causes.
File / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — Amid calls to light the Aerial Lift Bridge blue and gold as a show of solidarity with Ukraine, city officials Monday defended their decision not to do so.

Duluth did light Enger Tower in the colors of the Ukranian flag over the weekend, but balked at the idea of following suit with the bridge.

The city equipped the bridge with a new LED lighting system in 2020 at a cost of $155,000. The lighting is more efficient, saving the city more than $5,000 annually in electrical costs, and it also provides for the possibility of a diverse color palette.

But Noah Schuchman, Duluth's chief administrative officer, explained to the City Council on Monday night that city staff have stopped the practice of changing the lighting for special occasions or causes since April 2020.

"The city does not accept requests for lighting the historic lift bridge, which is an internationally recognized landmark and on the state and federal historic registry," he said.

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"For that reason, there is no policy to guide its lighting," Schuchman said, noting that there had been two recent previous decisions to light the bridge in 2020 — once to honor first responders during the pandemic and once again to honor graduating local high school seniors.

The city received a subsequent flood of additional requests to light the bridge for special occasions, according to Schuchman, who said: "These requests were and are overwhelming for staff and put us in the difficult position of determining which cause should benefit by its lighting and which cause should not. Someone would always be disappointed."

Schuchman said the city is stepping back from accepting new requests for special lighting at Enger Tower, as well. As Duluth seeks to develop a formal policy, it will, however honor prior lighting commitments it has already made at Enger.

While at large Duluth City Councilor Terese Tomanek said she understands many of the city administration's concerns about lighting requests, she objected to the decision not to light the bridge blue and gold as a sign of unity with Ukraine, while the country faces a Russian invasion.

"Rarely do we have a world crisis such as what is happening in Ukraine. We don't have a policy on lighting the bridge yet, and even if we did, I would hope that an exception would be made to show the support of our community for what's happening in Europe," she said.

"This is in line with the will of our community and humanitarian support. And it appears to me that though it's a complex issue, there's an easy answer," Tomanek said.

Council President Arik Forsman said: "I appreciate the administration's intent around being fair and clear and transparent. ... I also will share that as emails were coming in, I was agreeing with folks who were weighing in saying it would have been nice to have had the bridge lit.

"I do think that there are certain circumstances that warrant exceptions to policy. I know that's a slippery slope, but this is a big deal," he said, noting that his own decision to wear a blue shirt and a gold tie to Monday's council meeting was an intentional show of support to the people of Ukraine, as well as the many people with close ties to that country.

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In a news release issued Monday afternoon, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said: “We all know why people want to utilize or light the bridge for the issue that is impacting or an idea that is motivating them — it’s a structure that is iconic and memorable; on the state and federal historic registry for national significance, the Bridge that lets you know where you are. For these same reasons, the City has chosen to make the bridge off-limits for personal life events, political, financial, commercial or causal gain.”

The mayor's statement continued with the following commentary: “I understand the emotional toll the invasion of Ukraine is having on people around the world, and I unequivocally, with my whole heart and being, condemn the attack by Russia. In a time when I know we are all searching for what we can do in support of those who are suffering, lighting is one thing we can choose to focus on. But I humbly suggest we direct our collective energy and individual financial capacity towards donations and efforts to support the Ukrainian people and prepare ourselves for the opportunity to be a welcoming home for future refugees who may need us.”

READ THE LATEST ON UKRAINE

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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