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Seawall, slip, ship to total $11M

The costly and complicated task of shoring up and cleaning up Minnesota Slip -- long home to a popular floating museum, the William A. Irvin -- could easily have been enough to give the city of Duluth a financial migraine in 2018.

An artist's rendering shows what the refinished Minnesota Slip seawall area is expected to look like when work is complete. (Image courtesy of the city of Duluth)
An artist's rendering shows what the refinished Minnesota Slip seawall area is expected to look like when work is complete. (Image courtesy of the city of Duluth)

The costly and complicated task of shoring up and cleaning up Minnesota Slip - long home to a popular floating museum, the William A. Irvin - could easily have been enough to give the city of Duluth a financial migraine in 2018.

All told, a cascade of related projects will add up to an estimated $11 million bill, said Jim Filby Williams, Duluth's director of public administration. But the city of Duluth won't be asked to bear those costs alone. Federal, state and local partners will help lighten the load, leaving the city with about $1 million of anticipated financial exposure.

The Duluth Entertainment Convention Center is expected to shoulder much of the burden - $5.158 million to be exact.

Much of that support will come from the $4.483 million in savings the DECC realized when it refinanced bonds that were issued to build Amsoil Arena, thanks to its ability to cash in on lower interest rates.

Those funds could have been used to help pay for other needed work at the DECC, including several large roof replacement projects now on the horizon, said Chelly Townsend, the DECC's executive director.

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"It was a tough decision, but we needed to make that decision, because of how unsafe that area was. So, it was difficult to say no," she said.

Filby Williams said the city decided to tackle several projects together, entangled by design.

"What we're really talking about is four inextricably interrelated projects. No one of which can be undertaken without the others - the contaminant cleanup, the seawall reconstruction, the Irvin relocation and the renewal of the Irvin's failing hull," he said.

Filby Williams said the city would have been hard-pressed to tackle the projects separately.

"The contaminants in the slip could not be cleaned up unless the Irvin could be removed. And the Irvin could not be removed unless and until the seawall was reconstructed, because it was was bulging in a way that would have made it impossible to get through the Blue Bridge. And that unusual intersection of interests is what motivated this unusual federal/state/local authority funding package," he said.

The projects serve the public good on multiple fronts, according to Filby Williams. He noted that capping contaminated sediments in the slip will assist ongoing efforts to restore the St. Louis River estuary.

"But the restoration of the waterfront and the seawall itself also is critical to the future of the DECC and our tourism economy. That waterfront plays host to the DECC's Irvin operation, the DECC-supported Vista Fleet operation, the connection from Canal Park hotels to the DECC itself and the DECC-managed Bayfront Festival Park, the location of our occasional tall ship festivals and an envisioned cruise ship docking facility," he said.

"Without the seawall restoration project, those critical DECC-related activities would eventually have had to either cease altogether or would have faced serious impediments," Filby Williams said.

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He noted that the seawall had been rapidly failing, with dangerous sinkholes forming behind it, forcing the closure of a walkway and the demolition of a building formerly used to board Vista Fleet tour boat rides.

Townsend agreed the seawall needed immediate attention, prompting the DECC's board of directors to support the project.

But the costs continued to snowball. The DECC was unable to operate the Irvin in 2018, sacrificing about $225,000 in revenue.

When it was determined the laker would need to depart Minnesota Slip to make way for the cleanup, the DECC agreed to split the cost of the relocation with the city of Duluth. But if the project cost exceeded $600,000, the city pledged to cover the rest of the bill.

Filby Williams said the cost of moving the vessel from Minnesota Slip to Fraser Shipyards and back now is anticipated to exceed $800,000. The transit is particularly challenging because of the tight squeeze required, as the 611-foot laker has just 7 inches to spare on either side as it passes through the narrowest portions of the slip.

The DECC will seize the opportunity at Fraser to drydock the Irvin and have its hull patched and repainted. Also, a leaky propeller and a couple of broken winches will be repaired.

The city of Duluth successfully sought and received a $500,000 grant to help cover the cost of the Irvin's repairs, but Townsend said the bill now is expected to total about $650,000, leaving the DECC on the hook for $150,000.

Repairs to the Irvin are expected to be completed by no later than May 15, and it will make the return trip to the Minnesota Slip as soon as weather permits. The movement will require relatively calm conditions, given the delicate maneuvering involved.

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It's possible the Irvin won't be ready to receive its first guests until June - a month later than usual - but Townsend said she's eager to see the reconditioned floating museum back in operation.

During a recent budget presentation, Townsend walked the Duluth City Council through the expenses the DECC will incur as the multiple projects play out, and she gave the city a heads-up.

"If there's any emergency, we may need to turn to the city now, because we don't have much to fall back on," said Townsend, noting that the DECC traditionally has not turned to the city for financial help.

Townsend said the DECC has nearly $2 million in reserves, largely from selling the naming rights for Amsoil Arena. But once that money is gone, it would be hard to replace, and the DECC board aims not to drain those reserves, except as a last resort.

The William A. Irvin is docked at Fraser Shipyards in Superior. The cost of moving the floating museum from Minnesota Slip to Fraser is one of the expenses that weakened the DECC’s financial standing this year. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
The William A. Irvin is docked at Fraser Shipyards in Superior. The cost of moving the floating museum from Minnesota Slip to Fraser is one of the expenses that weakened the DECC’s financial standing this year. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

Related Topics: TOURISM
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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