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Duluth looks to pump new life into downtown

With the pandemic permanently altering the workforce, city and community leaders pitched a series of ideas Monday to improve the future of the central business district.

Woman speaking at a news conference.
Greater Downtown Council President Kristi Stokes speaks at a news conference at Lake Superior Plaza as Duluth Mayor Emily Larson and Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation President Shaun Floerke listen Monday. Stokes and Floerke co-chair the Mayor’s Downtown Task Force.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — A neighborhood watch program, better prosecution of petty crimes and a fund to inspire public art projects are a few of the immediate proposals to revitalize downtown Duluth and promote public safety.

Further down the road, the city needs to look at repurposing vacant downtown office space for housing and conduct a study of how the central business district may look in five years, according to recommendations from the Downtown Task Force, a 14-member panel announced by Mayor Emily Larson in March.

The 65-year-old was reportedly attacked by a man who was on pretrial release after another random downtown assault in April.

The task force has held four meetings over the past three months, and their work is expected to continue into September. But officials said they wanted to unveil a list of seven preliminary measures Monday, amid the busy summer season and recent concerns about crime.

"Our goal here is to really fill spaces with people," Larson said in a news conference at the recently renovated Lake Superior Plaza. "We have a gorgeous, incredible downtown that was set up for thousands of more people a day than we see currently. Some of that is here to stay, because we know the pandemic has changed how many people are working."

The mayor said the city plans to work with the Duluth Area Family YMCA and employment partners to staff walking groups, which will serve as an extra set of eyes and ears and along sidewalks and skywalks in peak times, including the lunch hour. Volunteers will also be encouraged to sign up for the patrols.

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Mayor Larson speaks at a news conference.
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson gestures during the Monday news conference.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The city will additionally work toward hiring another prosecutor — news that was welcomed by City Attorney Rebecca St. George, who said the current staff of four is overwhelmed, especially with the pandemic leaving courts significantly backlogged.

"They're amazing," she said of the criminal division, which hands cases ranging from gross misdemeanors to city ordinance violations. "Right now, it's a grind. Adding just one more person is going to really give them the opportunity to be a little more thoughtful about each case that comes through."

Officials said they'd also like to encourage public art and entertainment projects. Task force co-chair Shaun Floerke, president and CEO of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, said cities like Miami and Denver have been "transformed" by street art.

Just last week, the Duluth Street Art Initiative spent several days painting a wall and setting up a "learning lab" space for youth who visit the Life House drop-in center.

"It's changing the feel of where we are right now," Floerke said. "It's easy to kind of dismiss: 'That's paint on the wall.' It's not paint on the wall. It's paint gathering people. It's people being proud of where they are and wanting to lift that up. We live in a time where everybody wants to push stuff down, shoot it down, 'That won't work.' We call the community to pitch in and try to lift up."

Another idea in the works, Floerke said, is an "activation fund" that would provide grants to artists and other creators who come forward with unique ideas.

Fellow co-chair Kristi Stokes, president of Downtown Duluth's Greater Downtown Council, said her organization is looking to organize more entertainment opportunities. That includes Lake Superior Plaza, where the council is launching a "Power Up the Plaza" initiative that includes free coffee and music from 10-11 a.m. every Thursday through August.

Stokes said the Downtown Council also will work with businesses to determine if there are opportunities to expand space for opportunities such as outdoor dining and busking, and work with city officials to ease any permitting challenges.

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"Last week we had Sidewalk Days, and I think there was a much different feel in our downtown because of that," Stokes said. "You had people out on the street, you had interactions with the businesses, there were vendors, it was lively, there was music. And that's what it's all about. It's about bringing back the downtown, and bringing activity back to the downtown."

Larson noted that downtown will likely never see a pre-pandemic level of office workers again, as work-from-home policies become the norm, but there is always a need for more affordable housing.

"This is an incredible place to live," the mayor said, "and we are seeing more and more interest — tremendous interest — from outside developers, and, actually, a lot of developers in town, as well, who are looking at how do we not just transform specific buildings currently underway, but how can we expand housing throughout our downtown?"

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Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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