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Task force announces recommendations for downtown Duluth

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

A woman speaks indoors at a podium as four people stand in the background
Mayor Emily Larson speaks during a news conference at Minnesota Surplus and Outfitters on Tuesday to announce the Downtown Task Force's recommendations.
Brielle Bredsten / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Mayor Emily Larson’s Downtown Task Force announced its recommendations for safety, activation, vision and investment during a news conference on Tuesday at Minnesota Surplus and Outfitters.

The visible change with increase in blighted properties, increasing homelessness, low use of indoor and outdoor sidewalks and overall public safety issues had caught the concern of community members and business leaders, prompting the need for the task force's creation.

The 15-member task force is comprised of business and nonprofit leaders, government staff and officials from the city of Duluth and St. Louis County, in addition to national-, city- and county-level expert consultation. It has been meeting to examine the needs of downtown Duluth since appointed by the mayor in late April.

More than 100 business and property owners attended Duluth's Downtown Task Force's "Brick and Mortor Game" workshop Tuesday, led by national consultant Michele Reeves.

"Three years of road construction disrupted the long-held habits of downtown consumers and shoppers. Just as we were all making a comeback, COVID-19 made changed behaviors permanent," Larson said.

According to the report, there were approximately 18,000 workers downtown each day prior to the pandemic. While Larson said it is now a fraction of that due to work-from-home and hybrid schedules, she did not detail the amount of foot traffic currently experienced downtown for comparison.

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"While crime calls and statistics do not support an increased risk to people downtown, perception of safety is as important as actual safety," Larson said.

The task force's report states the Duluth Police Department's year-to-date calls for service as of Oct. 1 in the downtown area (Eighth Avenue East to Mesaba Avenue and First Street and below) was down by 135 from 9,408 reported in 2019. However, it did not take into account the decreased foot traffic and concentration of people and offer a percentage of crime per overall population.

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.

"The nexus of income inequality, increased chemical dependency, exacerbated mental health issues and the need for additional affordable housing units has encouraged people to take to the streets in their plea of panhandling, which the Supreme Court, and not local elected leaders, have established to be a protected First Amendment right," Larson said. "We need to tackle blighted areas and storefronts and reimagine creative ways to use vacant spaces. The downtown Shoppers parking ramp has got to go. We need to address illegal behaviors and continue to grow confidence in public safety downtown."

On the topic of crime, the report calls for the addition of a city prosecutor, filling vacant police positions, and continuation of the city's embedded outreach within the Downtown Duluth organization. It also stresses an increased focus on repeat offenders and prioritizing mental health response, including lobbying for more chemical and mental health services beds in Minnesota. Better communication and coordination among police, stakeholders and the public is also prioritized, with attention to housing needs and addressing public encampments.

The task force also calls for better lighting, including a storefront improvement incentive program to help business owners as well as addressing ongoing permitting concerns. They want the city to assess the skywalk system and the current need for downtown parking.

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Kristi Stokes, Downtown Task Force co-chair and Downtown Duluth president, speaks during Tuesday's media conference.
Brielle Bredsten / Duluth News Tribune

Members of the Downtown Task Force will be invited to meet quarterly to ensure it is on track, experiencing progress and adjusting course as needed, Larson said.

An 18-page task force report includes 27 recommendations with action items. The full report and recommendations can be found on the city’s website at duluthmn.gov/media/14234/downtown-task-force-report_final_11-1-22.pdf.

Brielle Bredsten is the business reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.

She earned a bachelor's degree in Professional Writing & Technical Communication, with minors in Advertising and Creative Writing from Metropolitan State University, in addition to a two-year professional paid internship as reporter/editor of the student newspaper.

She is an award-winning professional writer, photographer and editor based in rural Minnesota. Over the past decade, Brielle Bredsten has contributed more than 1,000 articles, feature stories, non-profit press-releases, photographs and columns. Her work has been published in several community newspapers.

Send her story tips, feedback or just say hi at bbredsten@duluthnews.com.
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