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Duluth seawall repair delays continue

Soaring steel costs threw a wrench into the city's plans and pushed the project timeline back.

People along the seawall behind the DECC.
Three electric scooters travel on the walkway between Harbor Drive and the harbor seawall behind the DECC on Sept. 7.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Local officials took a pass this year on offering to host the Festival of Sail, a historically popular semi-annual event, with the expectation that crews would be hard at work replacing the seawall in front of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center at the time. But little did they know, the project would be delayed by factors beyond the city's control.

Dan Hartman, executive director of the DECC, explained that organizers of tall-ship events typically require at least a year of lead time to coordinate with host communities, and at the time decisions were being made, Duluth did not look to be a viable candidate, putting Two Harbors in line to instead welcome the ship festival this past summer.

A couple of factors conspired to push the seawall project off track, said Jim Filby Williams, director of Duluth's parks, properties and libraries.

With a large number of projects in the pipeline on both the federal and state level, one challenge has involved processing all the paperwork that precedes a complicated project.

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.

But Filby Williams said the pandemic threw an even bigger impediment into the city's path. The original vision was to close Harbor Drive to through-traffic and to create a public space, Harbor Plaza, between the DECC and the waterfront that could readily accommodate events.

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In the spring of 2022, the cost of steel more than doubled, and Filby Williams said, "There are few public infrastructure projects that are more steel-intensive than seawalls."

"That caused the project cost to skyrocket by $7 million, and it became clear that the Harbor Plaza vision in its entirety was significantly beyond the city's financial reach," he said.

Staff went back to the drawing board and settled on a less ambitious plan to reduce the width of Harbor Drive from 36 to 24 feet and to use the newly liberated space to accommodate a bicycle and walking path.

"The aims of the project are the same: to create a safe and accessible bike/ped destination contiguous with and integral to the Baywalk and Lakewalk experience, to reinforce Duluth's unique sense of place, to maximize connections to the water and certainly to enhance resilience in the face of more intense and frequent Lake Superior storms, and, to the maximum extent possible, to provide for the flexible use of that space for events, cruise ships, tall ships, etc.," Filby Williams said.

A concept plan for the revised project should be completed and ready for review in about a month, he said.

If it is deemed to be suitable, the project could be put out for closed bids in January, with those bids likely set to be opened in February or March.

Senior Parks Planner Cliff Knettel said the project is complex and technical, with tie-backs to support the seawall extending all the way back from the water's edge to the narrowed Harbor Drive. Work on the seawall would likely be completed next year. But additional surface improvements in the area will probably not be finished until 2024.

People along the seawall behind the DECC.
A truck travels on Harbor Drive as two people walk on the path near the seawall behind the DECC.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

He said the work will need to be carefully coordinated to accommodate other major events, such as Grandma's Marathon. The seawall reconstruction also will need to occur in phases to ensure that cruise ship passengers can be effectively welcomed and processed during the interim.

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The anticipated total cost of the revised project is about $18.2 million, with three key funding sources:

  • $12.8 million from a state bonding bill
  • $4.9 million from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration
  • And $911,000 from Duluth's local tourism tax collections

The existing seawall in question varies in age from about 50 to 80 years.
Age isn't the only issue, Knettel noted.

"There's also deficiencies just in the way it was designed. We do have a lot of wave overtopping now when we have big storms," he said.

"So, part of this project is not just fixing that seawall but adding some infrastructure to prevent some of the damage we get from wave overtopping, especially that corner over by the aquarium," Knettel said.

Once the improvements are made, Hartman said he believes Duluth will again make for an attractive destination for future tall ship events.

"Duluth should be well positioned to host those ships, and we're eager and excited to do so," he said.

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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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