Repairs to Irvin, Minnesota Slip required Duluth to assemble complicated puzzle of funding

With the William A. Irvin now securely moored back home in Duluth, the costs of the overlapping projects that led to its relocation are coming into clearer focus.

Jack Krouse (left) and Martae Johnson paint the hull of the Irvin Tuesday morning. (Steve Kuchera /

The bill to shore up Minnesota Slip and fix up the William A. Irvin will likely total around $9.3 million. But that hefty financial burden will be borne by multiple entities.

Jim Filby Williams, Duluth's director of public administration, said four projects were closely intertwined at Minnesota Slip: an initiative to clean up and contain contaminants that had accumulated there, the repair of failing seawalls; the relocation of the Irvin and then the work of addressing overdue repairs to the vessel before it returned.

"You had four projects, each driven by independent needs, each justifiable on their own terms. But as a practical matter, to do just the contaminant cleanup you also have to reconstruct the seawall and remove the Irvin. And once you have gone to the trouble and expense of removing the Irvin, the financial argument for taking that opportunity to perform the restoration of the Irvin is overwhelming," Filby Williams said.

He explained that in order to clean up and cap contaminants in the relatively shallow slip, the Irvin had to be displaced. But first, the slip's bowed and deteriorating seawalls needed to be replaced so the ship could squeeze its way out of the narrow waterway.

Contaminants that had settled in the slip were capped in place as part of an effort to delist the St. Louis River as an "area of concern." The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency picked up about one-third of those costs, and the Environmental Protection Agency covered the remaining two-thirds of the tab, with federal funds flowing through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Filby Williams said.


The Duluth Entertainment Convention Center funded much of the cost of seawall repairs, drawing on about $4.5 million in savings it realized when bonds used to fund the construction of Amsoil Arena were refinanced at a lower interest rate.

The investment in new seawalls simply had to be made, as sinkholes had begun to form and the area was becoming unsafe, explained Chelly Townsend, executive director of the DECC.

Some of the slip's seawall infrastructure dates to the 1890s, and Filby Williams said the State Historical Preservation Office required a cultural resource expert to be on site, documenting and monitoring the work.

"So, by its nature, the project was very heavily laden with regulatory process," he said.

While the project required much orchestration between different entities, Filby Williams said the resulting collaboration brought forth "strengths and synergies that allowed us to get this project done."

"Moving this dead ship out of this minuscule opening is just a bedeviling technical challenge, and if we had been undertaking that project in isolation from the contamination cleanup, then the city and the DECC and its consultants would have been mostly on their own, and we likely would have struggled," Filby Williams said.

"But because removal of the vessel was necessary for the contaminant cleanup and because we were collaborating closely with the MPCA and the EPA as a result, that enabled our federal partners to bring in the Army Corps of Engineers Marine Design Center, which is based out of Philadelphia. I don't know if they would refer to themselves this way, but it felt like they were the marine engineering special forces," he said.


Seawall - Irvin project costs.jpg

The city entered an agreement with the DECC to evenly split the bill for moving the Irvin from Minnesota Slip to Fraser Shipyards and back, sharing the costs up to $600,000. But the actual expense of preparing for and executing the two-way trip exceeded expectations, leaving the city to bear the additional cost of an overrun of about $435,000 on top of the $300,000 it had initially set aside for the move.

Filby Williams noted that in light of the substantial investment the DECC made to reconstruct the slip's seawalls, "We feel comfortable with the relatively modest additional investment we had to make to close out this project."

The city also helped the DECC by applying for and obtaining a $504,000 Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Grant.

While Townsend said, "I haven't seen the final tally yet," she expressed confidence that from what she has heard, the work at Fraser will come in "pretty darn close" to on budget.

With the Irvin out of commission for two consecutive seasons due to the work, the DECC also was deprived of two years' worth of revenue from the museum ship, which typically generates between $200,000 and $225,000 annually.

But Townsend anticipates next year will be a strong one for the Irvin, with people eager to see the restored vessel.

"People have been asking: Where's our boat?" Townsend said, noting the way many residents strongly identify with the Irvin, as demonstrated by their desire to see it return. She said DECC staff members are already laying plans for "a grand reopening" of the museum ship next year.


Dan Patterson sweeps the hull of the William A. Irving Tuesday in preparation for a new coat of paint. “We’re going to continue with all our maintenance work as long the weather holds off,” William A. Irvin Museum Director Steve Rankila said. The Irvin, which returned to Minnesota Slip by the DECC on Oct 16 after undergoing repairs at Fraser Shipyards, is scheduled to reopen for public tours on May 1. (Steve Kuchera /

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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