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Poll affirms stubborn attraction to Duluth

A survey released Monday shows many Duluth-area residents are nervous about the future, but they feel attached nonetheless to their city. When asked to assess the local economy, 90 percent of respondents rated it as poor. And 49 percent said a la...

Poll on Duluth

A survey released Monday shows many Duluth-area residents are nervous about the future, but they feel attached nonetheless to their city.

When asked to assess the local economy, 90 percent of respondents rated it as poor. And 49 percent said a lack of employment opportunities is the greatest problem facing their community.

Duluth and 25 other cities participated in the Soul of the Community project, a nationwide research study being conducted by Gallup Poll and the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation. In Duluth, 401 people took part in the study.

Perceptions of a weak economy stood out in Duluth. Just 39 percent of area residents said they were thriving, compared with 46 percent of respondents in all 26 cities.

But the study also revealed that residents of the Twin Ports feel an unusually strong sense of attachment to their community -- a fact likely to bode well for the local economy.

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"We're not prepared to talk about causality, but we do see a relation between GDP [gross domestic product] and community attachment," said Katherine Loflin, the study's lead consultant.

That link makes common sense to Drew Digby, a labor analyst for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

"The more residents love a place, the better off it's probably going to be," he said. "That's one of the reasons Duluth is doing pretty well."

Loflin said one of the goals of her study has been to help identify key differentiators that draw people to communities. As a group, Duluth residents said they most valued having fun places to gather, a welcoming culture and being able to spend time in a place of aesthetic beauty.

"The thing that jumps out at me is the connection between the quality of life and the economic strength of a community," Duluth Mayor Don Ness said.

"People love our community, its natural surroundings and what this area has to offer. Yet there's a perception that there are not the same kinds of opportunities here. There's sometimes a sense of pessimism, and it's a major factor that's been holding us back from creating the kind of economic growth we'd like to see," he said.

Ness encourages people to look at how far Duluth has come since the last major economic downturn in the 1980s. At that time, the city's unemployment rate flirted with 20 percent, and the mayor recalled the community was considered "one of the most economically depressed places in the nation."

This time around, Duluth has maintained higher levels of employment than the state and national averages, Ness said, thanks largely to the diversification of its economy.

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"The results of this survey tell me that as the economy picks up, Duluth has a very sound foundation on which to build. And I expect the future will bring the kind of growth and prosperity that have not been seen here in many years," Ness said. "I'm very optimistic about where we're headed."

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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