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Walz supports $12 million bonding request for Duluth's Spirit Mountain

The Duluth Armory project failed to garner the governor's support.

Skiers at Spirit Mountain
Libby Brust rounds a pole during a women's slalom competition at Spirit Mountain.
Tyler Schank / 2020 file / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz unveiled his bonding recommendations Tuesday, and while several big-ticket Duluth projects made the cut, others did not. The governor’s bonding proposal is just the starting point in a back-and-forth process that likely will involve competing plans from Minnesota’s House and Senate.

As part of a $2.7 billion package, Walz proposed providing $12 million to Spirit Mountain and $3.83 million for Duluth’s historic Depot.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson referred to the Spirit Mountain funding as “our No. 1 priority.”

“So, I’m really thrilled and grateful the governor recognized that and heard us loud and clear and made that accommodation,” she said.

Larson said about two-thirds of Spirit Mountain’s guests come from outside of Duluth, boosting the regional economy. She also said that proposed infrastructure improvements at the recreational area are expected to boost ticket sales, leading to a 40% increase in employment at Spirit Mountain.

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If Duluth’s bonding request proves successful, it has pledged to match the $12 million in state funding with equal local support .

“It’s not free money. It comes with a lot of strings attached,” Larson said.

But other local projects notably missing from the governor’s funding list include requests for $7.5 million to help restore and redevelop the historic Duluth Armory building and $1.6 million to help renew an old science building at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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Mark Poirier, executive director of the Armory Arts and Music Center, expressed disappointment at being excluded from the governor’s list of recommended projects.

“This is a strong project, and we have a great partner for it in George Sherman and Sherman Associates. With the preparation that we have done, the armory project stands out due to community and regional support, historic and cultural significance and entrepreneurial development potential,” he said in a statement.

The Duluth Armory Arts and Music Center
The Duluth Armory Arts and Music Center announced a partnership agreement with Sherman Associates to rehabilitate and redevelop the historic Duluth Armory on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021.
Jed Carlson / File / Superior Telegram

Larson said she continues to support the Duluth Armory request.

“If you’re one of the projects that doesn’t make the cut, that’s disappointing," she said.

She also noted that the armory project had not had the benefit of much lead time, with details of the proposed restoration made public in late December .

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But Larson warned it would be premature to count the armory project out of the running at this point. She pointed out that Sherman, the would-be developer, is well-connected and respected.

“I know he’s clearly passionate about this project, as is the armory board. So, I anticipate that they’ll have really good conversations in the next few weeks,” Larson said.

“It’s definitely to your advantage to have the governor in your corner with his recommendations, but, of course, the governor can’t support everything,” she said, noting that other legislative champions could still come to support the armory project.

The governor's office received bonding requests for more than $5.5 billion — more than double the sum Walz proposes to spend.

Spirit Mountain isn’t the only ski-centered recreational area the governor aims to support. He also recommended $10.19 million in funding for new water lines and snowmaking equipment at Giants Ridge in Biwabik.

Larson contends that rather than competing with one another, the two projects partner nicely to make the case for major recreational attractions that provide regional benefits.

“I think that’s a brilliant pairing," she said.

Other Northland projects included in the governor’s package of recommendations include:

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  • $12 million for recreational amenities at the Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park.
  • $3 million for a multi-modal trailhead center in Silver Bay.
  • $2.5 million for St. James pit mitigation efforts to reduce the risks of flooding in Aurora.
  • $2 million for Vermilion Community College classroom building, design and renovation.

The governor also is recommending $200 million be allocated to a statewide bridge replacement program that could be used to help fund a proposed $13 million rehabilitation of Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge, among other projects.

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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