Virgil Swing: You can't sell what you don't own -- or what no one else wants
Many critics of the Ness administration's plans for layoffs, program cuts and higher fees to balance the city budget have suggested that Duluth instead sell such things as Great Lakes Aquarium, Spirit Mountain, Lake Superior Zoo, the Enger and Le...
Many critics of the Ness administration's plans for layoffs, program cuts and higher fees to balance the city budget have suggested that Duluth instead sell such things as Great Lakes Aquarium, Spirit Mountain, Lake Superior Zoo, the Enger and Lester golf courses and the water and gas utilities.
It's true the city should not be in some of those ventures, but, now that they are, selling them would be difficult in most cases -- and impossible in others. Millions of Americans who'd love to sell their homes can affirm that sales take place only when a willing buyer shows up.
The subsidy-gobbling aquarium can't be sold because it doesn't belong to Duluth. The state put a lot of money into its creation and is the effective owner.
It would be interesting to know how often some deep-pocketed private developer has approached city officials offering big bucks to acquire the zoo, golf courses or ski-recreation area. I bet the answer ranges between seldom and never.
I haven't heard anyone advocate selling the Duluth 10 theater, but that could be a prospect -- if only there was a market for it and no legal entanglements to such a sale (as with the aquarium). The adjoining Omnimax theater would also be best off in private, tax-paying hands, but has less appeal.
Most of the water, gas and sewer operation known as Comfort Systems also holds little attraction for private business, although there has been occasional talk that Minnesota Power might buy it. Any buyer would likely pass on the water and sewer divisions, given Duluth's current troubles with water
and sewer pipes and the federal mandate to fix those problems.
Recent high natural gas prices might make that part of the utility appealing to private interests, but there are few likely prospective buyers. If Mayor Don Ness has been approached by them, he should share that information with city residents. (Unless, of course, they are in active negotiations.)
No, the best we can probably get out of a discussion of selling such city assets is to use it as a reminder to never again make the mistake of putting city money into what should be private operations.
The enthusiasm about a high-speed train between Duluth and the Twin Cities reminds me of the optimistic preconstruction talk about how popular the aquarium would be.
I lived in and around New York City for several years and know how practical passenger trains can be, and those are not even high-speed trains. But they serve a compact metropolitan area of about 20 million people -- compared to the trees, farm fields and occasional houses that exist between Duluth and the metro area.
I'm not against all city operations outside the core services of police, fire and streets. The city's annual subsidy to the Duluth Transit Authority is easily defended. The buses reduce traffic and pollution while serving a segment of the community without ready access to a car.
Likewise, the city should play a role in assuring adequate housing, though it is easy to jump too deeply into such ventures.
And any well-run city will be involved in secondary -- but still important -- services such as parks, recreation and libraries. Programs for senior citizens, which Duluth is at least temporarily cutting back on, are also defensible when finances permit.
I didn't mention the Aerial Lift Bridge in any of this because there would probably be a huge outcry if it were put up for sale. And there will be no market for it in any case, unless tolls are possible.
I think a recent letter to the editor that suggested selling the naming rights to icons like the bridge was offered tongue in cheek; though if I were a mayor or councilor in tough financial times like these, I'd at least listen to such a pitch.
Ironically, all this talk of selling public assets to the private sector comes amid a national discussion of this topic, triggered by such things as Indiana leasing its interstate highway toll road to a private firm. Some such actions can contribute to the public good and some will not. But discussions should be limited to public assets for which there might be a buyer.
E-mail Virgil Swing at firstname.lastname@example.org .