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Mayor's View: 'Duluth is on a roll'

In my State of the City address this past week, I lifted up our successes: reinstating summer youth programming, our dedicated sales tax for streets, construction in the medical district, and progress meeting our energy-climate goals. I also outlined our very real challenges, big issues that need urgent action.

Duluth is on a roll, yet not everyone in our community is thriving. Historic inequities and big challenges still divide and test our community, and I'm reminded of what the late Sen. Paul Wellstone used to say, "We all do better when we all do better." Or, "An injury to one is an injury to all," as my labor friends say.

Emily LarsonIn my speech, I laid out four priority areas and asked for your help: connecting jobs with those who need them, expanding affordable child care, meeting our affordable-housing crisis, and making Duluth more sustainable and energy-resilient.

Let's take each of them on.

First, jobs. Despite historically low unemployment rates last year, many construction, health care, and service jobs went unfilled. African-American and Native American residents are four times more likely to be excluded from a job. If we don't address these disparities, they threaten the economic health and vitality of our whole community.

I've committed to integrating workforce development and career pathways into everything we do as a city to help fill job vacancies and smash persistent disparities across race and gender. We are working with the Duluth Building Trades and others in the health care and hospitality sectors to address disparities and job shortages and create career pathways.

We want to find builders, businesses, and community organizations which champion job opportunities for those currently without jobs, both as a personal priority and as the key to building shared economic prosperity. We will ask them to join a group of "employer workforce champions" to help create and lead innovative, citywide efforts to tackle our workforce shortages and connect people with meaningful work.

Second, accessible and affordable child care. There is simply not enough affordable child care in Duluth, which has enormous costs. It stresses families, burdens employers, and hurts children. Following a zoning change that allows child-care facilities to be located closer to where parents work, several local businesses have stepped up and expressed interest in building child-care facilities. We need more to take up the cause.

The city will work to eliminate barriers such as providing low-interest loans to help cover initial start-up costs. And we will lead with public and private partners to create a downtown child-care center available for children of both public employees and low-income downtown workers.

Third, affordable housing. We've helped catalyze nearly 1,000 new houses and apartments over the last three years yet have failed to solve our affordable-housing crisis. On any given night, hundreds of Duluth residents have no home; and hundreds more worry if they'll have one next week. This tears at our community, impacts people's health, and harms our children. We are morally obligated to figure this out.

For the first time, we are hiring a housing developer who will work with a dedicated city housing team to achieve our housing goals. I will activate a Mayor's Task Force on Affordable Housing and ask allies from the health care, business, county, and aging sectors to help us come up with a long-term, dedicated funding mechanism to address our affordable-housing crisis. We don't have the answers to this crisis; we need your new and innovative ideas.

Finally, energy resiliency and sustainability. We will meet the city's commitment to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 15 percent in my first term, and by 2020 we'll more than double it. Yet science, the survivability of the planet, and 500-year storms every few years say we must do more. I am asking the City Council to create a new sustainability-officer position who will work with the Energy Plan Commission and others to drive energy transition and sustainability across our whole community. We are asking for a community-wide commitment to move to 100 percent renewable electricity and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

These are big tasks with big asks of city staff — and of this community. We will need everyone. We can't do it alone.

The first step is embracing the complexity of the challenges we face and recognizing them as our collective cause. Only then, as one community, with hope and shared commitment, can we build an economy and community that works for everyone.

We can do this. Together.

On Monday, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson delivered the annual State of the City address at Myers-Wilkins Elementary School. In this followup, she addresses our shared challenges and successes.