St. Louis River corridor plan prompts optimism, concern

The city of Duluth is preparing to make an unprecedented investment to enhance recreational opportunities and tourism throughout the city's St. Louis River corridor.

Corridor plan map
(News Tribune Graphics)

The city of Duluth is preparing to make an unprecedented investment to enhance recreational opportunities and tourism throughout the city’s St. Louis River corridor.
All told, the city aims to sink about
$50 million into park improvements, river access points, new trails and other amenities along the river and elsewhere in western Duluth - $18 million in local tourism tax collections, used to leverage an additional estimated $32 million from state, federal and private sources.
The focus on western Duluth - outlined by Mayor Don Ness in his State of the City address a year ago - now is starting to take shape with concepts for how the money could be spent. As the details of the proposed projects percolate in coming months, they’re sure to stimulate lively discussion. Already, local residents and community leaders are weighing their priorities.
Jeanne Koneczny, an Irving neighborhood resident and longtime community booster, takes encouragement from the discussions already in progress - although she acknowledges neighborhood participation has been spotty.
“I think there are a large number of people who don’t know what’s going on and who really don’t care what’s going on. Then, you have another group of people who are looking to the future and what that future will hold,” she said.
Nevertheless, Koneczny has been impressed by the caliber of  involvement she’s seen at river coalition gatherings and other meetings.
“There is a group of young people who I think are going to be the next neighborhood advocates. They maybe don’t know it yet, but I think they’ll be the leaders. It’s nice to see younger people getting involved,” she said.
For 4th District Duluth City Councilor Howie Hanson, the pending investments will be a welcome development after years of often feeling that his Lincoln Park neighborhood had been forgotten.
“Some TLC for western Duluth is long overdue and will be much appreciated,” he said.
“It’s about more than the money,” Hanson said, describing a sense of neighborhood validation. “This is an opportunity to really make a strong statement to businesses and residents that this is our time to be part of Team Duluth.”
Chris Dahlberg, a St. Louis County commissioner and resident of Morgan Park, said the city must strike a balance between tourists and local residents.
“You have here the tourism, and you have over here the wishes of the citizenry. A lot of them intersect, but they might not be a perfect intersection,” he said.
Hansi Johnson, director of recreational lands for Minnesota Land Trust, has been working with the city on its plan for the river corridor and agreed that multiple desires must be taken into consideration.
“We want to improve access for local residents and also have things for visitors as well,” he said.
Johnson described what he views as a constructive ongoing dialogue.
“It’s not just that the city has proposed this but has worked with user groups in this public/private partnership,” he said.
Dahlberg credits Duluth for reaching out to involve residents in the discussion but said many busy people have not been engaged. He encouraged city staff to redouble efforts to involve more neighbors.
“You want to avoid the perception that this is kind of Ivy League intellectuals that are imposing their wisdom down on the people,” he said. “I think the reality is you talk to the people who have the common sense and live in these neighborhoods and ask them: What do you think is the best for the area? “
‘A shot in the arm’
Jim Filby Williams, Duluth’s director of public administration, described the corridor proposal that’s been assembled as “a plan grounded in 40 years of public input.”
But Filby Williams also said the package of projects he recently presented to the Duluth City Council was meant to serve as conceptual guide rather than any sort of a binding blueprint.
At Large City Councilor Linda Krug called the plan a “strong, awesome vision” and said: “I think this will really pop and bring the western part of Duluth into focus.”
Meanwhile, 5th District City Councilor Jay Fosle, who represents Duluth’s westernmost neighborhoods, declined to comment on the plan when contacted by the Duluth News Tribune.
District 7B Rep. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth, who represents western Duluth, expressed optimism that the pending investments in recreational attractions will prove a valuable stimulus for the economy of western Duluth.
“I think it needs kind of a shot in the arm, not necessarily dissimilar from what has happened in the downtown area, though maybe not to that extreme,” he said.
The outdoor recreational thrust of the investment in western Duluth also makes sense to Simonson, who said many people are unaware of all of the outdoor recreation that western Duluth has to offer.
“These are things that attract people from out of town, and I think the more people that we bring in that are interested in outdoor activities, then that in turn - in theory - would spur some economic development, in terms of hotels and other businesses. And that’s when I think people will start to realize that something’s working here,” he said.
Greg Benson, co-founder of Loll Designs, a manufacturer of furniture and kitchenware in Duluth’s Irving neighborhood, said the city’s recreational offerings should help companies like his recruit and retain young talent in the area.
“For many years, there was this notion in Duluth that it’s almost impossible to live and work in our city if you’re young. Well, what better thing is there to attract young people than with cross-country skiing trails, mountain biking and other healthy activities?” he asked.
Benson is so supportive of efforts to develop additional recreational opportunities that his company has contributed $30,000 each of the past two years to help fund the trail-building efforts of COGGS - short for Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores.
Hansi Johnson, of Minnesota Land Trust, said Duluth has a unique opportunity that’s already the envy of other communities.
“It’s amazing the feedback we’ve gotten nationally, from other cities. They ask us, ‘How are you doing this?’ ” he said.
Dahlberg said he supports efforts to bring new recreational amenities into western Duluth, but he advised the city to proceed with caution in the area that’s long been the industrial backbone of the city.
“I hope we don’t go to the point where we say, ‘It’s got to be all this recreation and trails,’ and the next thing you know they say, ‘Well, we can’t have industry out here.’ That would be sad,” he said.
Dahlberg called for a balance and respect for both western Duluth’s industrial heritage and its future potential.
“I’m always going to be very leery if we if we start to get tourism that pushes out industry, because those industrial jobs are paying $40,000 to $60,000 salaries, not the tourism,” Dahlberg said.
Koneczny said she’s encouraged by the city’s current focus on its St. Louis River Corridor communities but isn’t taking that commitment for granted in the future - especially with Mayor Don Ness leaving office in less than a year.
“I’ve been to this rodeo before. There’s going to be a new mayor coming to town, and a lot will depend on what his or her agenda is going to be,” she said.
Simonson said it helps that the designated tax revenue is specifically earmarked by law for use in the St. Louis corridor, but he understands the fear that dollars could be diverted. He contends that vigilance is warranted, especially given concerns among some western Duluth residents that the area could be shortchanged.
“You do get a fair amount of skepticism, and I think rightly so. But I think the key is that we work collectively to really hold future city administrations to their task,” he said.
News Tribune outdoors writer Sam Cook contributed to this report.

Project details
What’s being proposed and envisioned for western Duluth and the city’s St. Louis River corridor?
Jim Filby Williams, Duluth’s director of public administration, recently laid out a picture of what the city could do with the $18 million it will collect from a reinstated tourism tax, and the additional
$32 million the city expects to leverage from state, federal and private sources.
Filby Williams said these ideas provide a concept - rather than a set guide - for what could be done to develop and improve outdoor recreation in the area.
Here’s an overview of what’s being proposed by city administration:
Trails are one of the city’s top priorities, with $12.45 million slated to be spent on them.
Nordic ski center: A new 3.5-kilometer (2.2-mile) cross-country ski trail is proposed at the base of Spirit Mountain with access from the Grand Avenue chalet. The trail would have snowmaking capabilities and would be lighted. It would be designed for beginner to intermediate skiers. The trail has been envisioned with input from the Duluth Cross-Country Ski Club.
New loop hiking trails: The city envisions creating short loop hiking trails near Enger Tower, Ely’s Peak, Bardon Peak, Spirit Mountain and Brewer Park. The trails, as proposed, would offer less-than-5-mile excursions, possibly starting from existing segments of the Superior Hiking Trail, which crosses all of Duluth.
Duluth Traverse segment: The Duluth Traverse, when completed, will be approximately 100 miles of single-track trail for mountain biking and other human-powered uses. It’s a project of COGGS (Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores) and the city of Duluth. One of the river corridor proposals would complete a portion of the Traverse connecting Brewer Park to Spirit Mountain.
All-weather mountain-biking trail: This proposal is for a crushed aggregate trail at Spirit Mountain for mountain-biking in wet weather. The 4.6-mile trail would be lift-accessible and would be designed for beginner-level riders. It might be used for local high school mountain-biking races.
West DWP multi-use trail: The city proposes to build a 6-mile-long trail along the former Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific railroad corridor, a route that feature trestle bridges, a tunnel and impressive vista views en route to its western terminus off Becks Road.
Cross-City Trail: A 2.5-mile section of  paved multi-use trail stretching west to Spirit Mountain would feed into the new DWP trail.
Equestrian trail: The city would earmark $250,000 to invest in a horseback trail. With matching money, this could pay for a project at a yet-to-be-determined location. Candidate areas include Magney-Snively Park, along a section of the old DWP rail corridor west of Spirit Mountain or a connection to trails at Jay Cooke State Park.
Snowmobile trails: The city proposes to invest $250,000 to restore
4.5 miles of sled trails in the Fairmount/Norton Park area, with the help of an additional $320,000 in outside funding.
ATV trails: If the City Council revokes Duluth’s standing ban on all-terrain vehicle use in the city, the proposed plan would set aside $250,000 to build trails for the machines at a yet-to-be-determined location with the help of matching funds.
River restoration & access
More than $11.9 million would be spent to restore Duluth’s riverfront and improve access to the water.
Paddlesports center: The city plans to establish a paddlesports center on the St. Louis River just below Spirit Mountain near Tallas Island. As conceived, the center would offer a mainland launching area for canoes and kayaks with a parking area. The center would become an anchor point on the St. Louis River “water trail,” and possibly part of a national water trail. Tallas Island, just offshore, would be an aquatic management area. A path would link the facility to a Spirit Mountain trail center.
Kingsbury Creek: The city proposes to seek money for the restoration of Kingsbury Bay, which has been filled in with sediment over the years. The anticipated project cost is anywhere from $5 million to $10 million. A connecting trail would then be built, providing access from the Cross-City Trail and the Lake Superior Zoo.
Western Waterfront Trail: This project would restore 3.3 miles of waterfront trail and extend the path by 1.3 miles.
Indian Point Campground: Approximately $1.5 million would be invested to renew and update Indian Point Campground on the riverfront.
The city proposes to spend $4.3 million for improvements to four recreation areas along the West Third Street/Grand Avenue/Commonwealth Avenue corridor, including Lincoln Park, the Wheeler Athletic Complex, Memorial Park and the Gary-New Duluth Recreation Area.
An additional $500,000 would be set aside to pay for work at neighborhood parks in western Duluth. The city would seek local matching money and in-kind support for projects there.
The city would spend about $400,000 to install new signs directing people to parks and trails throughout the river corridor neighborhoods.
Climbing center
Casket Quarry is a popular rock- and ice-climbing area in West Duluth now on St. Louis County tax-forfeited land. The city proposes to acquire the land and turn it into a climbing park at a cost of about $400,000.
Ice forms on the quarry cliffs where water seeps out of the rocks and freezes in winter. At some point, the city might consider creating more, on other parts of the cliff, to accommodate beginning ice climbers on shorter climbs.
The open area of land below the cliffs would be improved to offer a public walking space. The site also could be used as a trailhead for hikers to access the nearby Superior Hiking Trail and the Duluth Traverse single-track trail in Brewer Park.
Zoo/Fairmount Park
The city aims to invest $8 million to $16 million in improvements at the flood-damaged Lake Superior Zoo and neighboring Fairmount Park.
The city’s proposal envisions the zoo shifting away from exhibiting exotic animals, and focusing instead on native regional wildlife and habitat.
Wade Stadium
The restoration of Wade Stadium already is underway, with work expected to be completed this year.
The historic stadium, built as a Works Progress Administration project and opened in 1941, is receiving artificial turf, bullpens, fencing, lighting and a modern scoreboard. The facility’s failing brickwork also is being repaired.
Spirit Mountain
A new pipeline is being installed to draw water from the St. Louis River for snowmaking. The project is expected to be finished this year at a total cost of about $6.5 million, with about half of the tab being covered by state bonding money.  
News Tribune outdoors writer Sam Cook contributed to this report.

Plan budget
(News Tribune Graphics)

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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