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Ramped-up talks end months of bitterness

After the bitterest of battles last summer between the city and the city's largest employer, just how was an agreement reached to fill the now mostly empty First Street parking ramp?...

After the bitterest of battles last summer between the city and the city's largest employer, just how was an agreement reached to fill the now mostly empty First Street parking ramp?

"We kept the lawyers out of the room," Duluth Mayor Don Ness explained to the News Tribune editorial page yesterday. "And lo and behold, an hour and a half later we had an agreement in principle."

Details have since been worked out between the city and SMDC Health System. Final approval of the deal is expected today from both the Duluth Economic Development Authority and City Council.

Last summer, an agreement -- any agreement -- seemed as unlikely as February golf at Enger after talks deteriorated, so much so that SMDC started busing employees from other ramps rather than have them use the city-owned structure next door. Then-Mayor Herb Bergson also tried the take-my-ball-and-go-home tactic, publicly encouraging residents to seek health care elsewhere.

That's how the stalemate remained until Ness, in his first week in office, contacted the hospital. Both sides agreed they were suffering from the stalemate and subsequently hammered out a 20-year deal. SMDC will pay the city $72 per space per month for 200 employees with 3 percent annual increases. That's up from the $65 per space that SMDC previously sought and the $150 per space the city wanted the hospital to pay.

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In addition to the new, and final, monthly rate, SMDC will make a one-time payment of $1.6 million to the city.

So a compromise did prove possible -- with lawyers on both sides apparently signing off once they were allowed back in the room. Kudos to all who let cooler heads prevail to get the deal done.

And what can the rest of us do? That's easy. When visiting SMDC, or anywhere in the neighborhood, park at the ramp.

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