An affirming report this week by an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Great Lakes research organization showcased Duluth as one of 10 examples of how cleaning up polluted waterways leads to community revitalization.

"These communities came together, struggled, and ultimately found the paths to effectively reclaim their waters," the International Association for Great Lakes Research concluded in its study, titled "Great Lakes Revival."

Duluth is among the communities from eight states and two provinces with unique harbor or river-type success stories documented in the study. Duluth was highlighted in chapter 10, titled "The St. Louis River Story."

Through different ways and varied approaches, communities "overcame challenges" to do the work the study described as "unburdening waters from years of neglect and abuse." Cleaning and reclaiming the waterways results in "economic benefit and community rebirth to the tune of hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars of economic benefits and countless new jobs for local residents," said the study, a collaborative effort of Canadian and U.S. researchers from across sectors of the Great Lakes region.

The study cites the 1985 bi-national adoption of Areas of Concern — 43 areas of visible and invisible damage addressed by communities in the U.S. and Canada. The study called the work on those areas across the past 34 years "the lifeblood" of restoration efforts.

Fourteen of those areas were in the port of Duluth-Superior, the largest port on the Great Lakes, where legacy pollutants from steel-making, ship-building and industrial expansion in general served to both foul the waterway and disrupt the community's connection to the river.

"[I]ndustrial expansion took a toll on the health of the river through the discharge of untreated or partially treated industrial and municipal effluents, resulting in the contamination of estuarine sediments," the study said. "The legacy of industrial development is still apparent today in Superfund sites, contaminated sediment hot spots, and sawmill waste sites that compromise aquatic habitat."

Clean-up, restoration of lost habitat, and development of parks and access landings yields private investment, the study concluded —citing Pier B Resort Hotel being built upon an old cement terminal and upcoming apartment complexes along the St. Louis River corridor as examples of a city reconnecting with its waterway.

"By promoting world-class mountain biking, skiing, kayaking, and sailing in the city, Duluth is reclaiming its waterfront and inviting people back to the water through investments in access," the report said, identifying a series of park and landing projects built using tourism taxes, beginning with the first one at Chambers Grove in the Fond du Lac neighborhood.

The study outlines how the area remains the industrial heart of the city while better coexisting with the river. It suggests Duluth is evolving in its relationship with the river, having gone from industrialization to clean-up/restoration, and "now is entering community revitalization" and "a renewed sense of stewardship."

Former Mayor Don Ness is quoted, saying, "There is no question that if not for Lake Superior, Duluth would be defined as a river city."

The study also concluded, by virtue of 2017 U.S. Census Bureau analysis, that younger people ages 20-34 are being attracted to the city by the "increased vitality" of the St. Louis River corridor.

"Duluth is evolving to embrace a new relationship with the St. Louis River by expanding the basis of its economy and identity," the study said. "[Tourists'] attention is now turning toward the western side of Duluth along the banks of the St. Louis River."

The study's summary ended in a poetic flourish, worthy of a David Attenborough narration: "[W]e all benefit when we come to see — or just even know that they exist intact — jewels that crown our one shared home, the fragile blue and green sphere that is planet Earth."

The areas covered in the study, followed by a link to the study:

  • Buffalo River Cleanup Improves Buffalo’s Ecological Health, Economy, and Public Spaces

  • The Collingwood Harbour Story: From Shipbuilding Center to Great Lakes Pollution Hot Spot to Waterfront Revitalization

  • Cleveland Flats’ Revitalization Linked to Recovery of the Cuyahoga River

  • Cleanup of the Detroit River to Revitalization of the Waterfront

  • The Economic Benefits of Remediating Contaminated Sediments at Hamilton Harbour’s Randle Reef

  • From Lumber to Foundries to Revitalization: The Muskegon Lake Story

  • From Cleanup of the River Raisin to Revitalization of Monroe, Michigan

  • Economic Benefits Help Drive Cleanup of Severn Sound

  • From Remediation to Restoration and Revitalization: The St. Louis River Story

  • Cleanup of Toronto Harbour Leads to Waterfront Revitalization

Great Lakes Revival full study