Duluth mayor commits to revitalize downtown, improve parks, provide more child care

Emily Larson's "State of the City" speech focused on vision and persistence.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson speaks to the crowd during a press conference about ending veteran homelessness
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, pictured during a press conference June, 16, gave her annual "State of the City" address Wednesday night.
Jed Carlson / 2022 file / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — Mayor Emily Larson spent much of her annual "State of the City" address focusing on the need to resurrect the city’s downtown.

“All over the country, cities are faced with how to reimagine and revitalize their downtowns when they can no longer count on daily office workers. Few have figured it out — but Duluth will,” she pledged during her speech at The West Theatre on Wednesday night.

Larson said public safety concerns have increased during the pandemic and in its aftermath as the city's downtown was hollowed out.

“Statistically, the facts are clear — crime has dropped across Duluth by 22% since 2021. But that is not how people feel, and downtown is one area that has seen increased calls,” she acknowledged.

But much of the problem behavior downtown, including aggressive panhandling, has not risen to the level of being a chargeable offense.


City officials hope the $165,000 investment will reduce problem behavior in the Tech Village parking structure.

“We can’t arrest ourselves out of this problem, so here’s what we’re doing,” Larson said.

She pointed to recently created police units formed to address mental health issues and substance abuse, as well as a crisis response outreach team being led by the Human Development Center.

“And this year, following the leadership of the beloved Judge Tarnowski, our city attorney’s office, along with the Duluth Police and other community partners, are launching a new misdemeanor mental health court. While we are all deeply saddened by Sally’s unexpected passing this month, her legacy in this new court will live on,” Larson said.

"She saw the humanity in my clients in a way very few people can," one public defender told the News Tribune.

“The court will focus on high-risk and high-need people who have behaviors that directly impact the community but are ineligible for a traditional treatment court,” she explained. “Rather than being jailed, or simply being released to reoffend, we aim to hold offenders accountable by connecting them with services and other resources to address their underlying issues.”

Larson said the city is following through on many of the recommendations made by a Downtown Task Force she appointed.

“No community thrives without a thriving downtown,” she said.

Larson noted that a group of nine community leaders recently visited Macon, Georgia, with help from the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation “to study and learn from their successful economic development, downtown revitalization, and community inclusion.”

The 18-page report includes action items on safety, activation, vision and investment.

“We came back brimming with ideas and energized commitment. Over the next two months, we’ll begin engaging with stakeholders from across our community on next steps here in Duluth,” she said.


Larson said the city also needs to do a better job of caring for its extensive system of outdoor amenities, including “122 developed parks; 353 miles of trails, ranging from hiking, biking, skiing, even horseback riding; 40 neighborhood playgrounds; and 79 rinks, athletic fields and courts.”

While that’s quite a wealth of parks, she said “the tough news” is that many have fallen into disrepair.

“Less than 10% of our neighborhood parks and recreational facilities are in ‘good’ condition. That’s just a fact,” Larson said.

“And here’s the stubborn math. Decades of disinvestment reaching back to the 1970s have dug us into a $155 million deferred parks maintenance hole. Our current capital funding to tackle this problem is grossly inadequate — less than $250,000 a year,” she said.

Larson said finding a long-term funding mechanism to improve and maintain the city’s parks is a must.

Mayor Emily Larson pushed back against a City Council effort to place a 10-year sunset on the proposed property tax to fund local parks but eased up on a broadband funding request.

“Solving this problem will not happen with happy talk or nostalgia for days gone by. We need to tackle that brutal math with a plan and the persistence to see it through,” she said.

Larson pointed to the tremendous investment that has been made in Duluth’s St. Louis River corridor with the help of a half-percent sales tax under the leadership of her mayoral predecessor, Don Ness. That tax, which is about to sunset, raised $18 million, and the city secured an additional $45 million in federal, state and private grants to spend on projects in its western neighborhoods.

She said the city can draw from that example.


“With City Council approval, we’ve asked the Legislature to continue it for another 30 years. This will raise up to $36 million, which we will use to leverage additional funds, just as we did for western Duluth,” Larson said. “Our focus will be to use this money to pay for park-based public athletic fields, courts and rinks throughout Duluth.”

“Once secured, we will start an extensive community engagement process, which along with our Parks Master Plan will help identify the projects and types of facilities to pursue,” she said.

Larson noted that under her administration, the city approved a dedicated street repair tax generating $10 million annually and enabling it to go from repairing 2 miles per year when she took office to 17 miles last year.

She said Duluth is now working to address other infrastructure needs, as well, including an effort to procure $10 million in state funding to help replace 6,300 lead water service lines that have been identified across the city.

State grants and loans should help to ease the city's financial burden.

Larson pointed to improved and affordable broadband service as another community need.

“This year we expect to begin construction on our fiber-optic internet pilot project, the first step in our commitment to ensure all Duluthians have access to reliable, affordable internet within six years," Larson said.

She said the city is also looking to address child care needs, with an estimated shortage of nearly 1,500 openings at present. Larson noted that the lack of affordable child care has kept some people out of the workforce, harming families and the local economy. To better address the issue, Larson announced plans to launch a mayoral task force to be led by Northland Foundation President and CEO Tony Sertich.

The governor on Wednesday detailed his plan for bigger reimbursements for child care providers and tax credits for parents that could lower costs and improve access.

Larson said her administration has made strides toward increasing the local supply of housing, including affordable units for families earning less than $50,000 per year.


“In partnership with Center City, One Roof Housing, the HRA, private developers and others we’ve built over 1,700 housing units since I took office. And there are 500 new homes in process for downtown over the next couple of years,” she said. “This is more new housing built over a comparable time period than we’ve seen in decades. And there’s still so much work to do.”

Larson said Duluth will meet future challenges only through a cooperative effort.

“It’s the community and your priorities that have guided me. Sustained me. Called me to account,” she said. “We’re making progress and writing a new chapter because of you, because we’ve worked together and stuck to the job that needs to be done.”

Emily Larson said there is much work still to do as she aims to revitalize downtown Duluth.

Former state legislator and Duluth City Councilor Roger Reinert, who is running against Larson, reacted to the mayor’s speech.

“The sharp contrast between her vision and mine starts with our assessment of where Duluth is at," he said in a statement Wednesday. "I’ve had over 100 one-to-one and small group conversations since we began our campaign in January and I can tell you Duluthians are concerned. They have seen their property taxes nearly double in the past eight years, and simultaneously seen a degradation in core city services.

"They don't see the state of the city as strong and growing stronger," Reinert said. "They see it as serious and headed in the wrong direction."

Roger Reinert says Duluth can "expect more, do better."

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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