Duluth is in trouble. Sixty years of constrictive and stationary population is setting the city up for disaster. Predictions are real of an acute labor shortage, as baby boomers retire from the workforce.
The populations of Fargo (124,662), Rochester (118,935), and Sioux Falls (183,793) all nearly tripled since 1960. Duluth’s (85,618) shrank by 20%.
Those other cities retooled their economies, balanced the books, retained their postmarks, lit their streets, filled job vacancies, maintained lower tax rates, raised per-capita incomes, and filled classrooms. Their insipid cityscapes can’t compete with Duluth’s, but they welcome new residents and graduates all the same.
As a University of Minnesota Duluth graduate forced to move away to pursue career opportunities, I see little changed in Duluth after nearly two generations and 40 classes of graduating cohorts.
Duluth has failed to diversify and regenerate. Economic development has mistakenly prioritized two uncomplimentary industry sectors: tourism and manufacturing.
The pandemic exposed the vulnerability of low-skill, low-pay hospitality jobs. It also crippled the aviation industry, and the Duluth Economic Development Agency is saddled with a disused aircraft maintenance base. Also, the fallout in the paper industry shuttered the Verso mill, and its future is uncertain.
I don’t disvalue those jobs, but I do question why Duluth seems averse to the knowledge economy. Unlike manufacturing — which requires huge start-up costs, capital investment in machinery and contracts, and, often, taxpayer subsidies — the knowledge economy needs just one thing: intellectual capital.
Only 150 miles to the south of Duluth are 21 Fortune 1000 companies that need corporate administration at all organizational levels, much of which can be done in satellite offices away from Twin Cities headquarters. Duluth would make a nice business center if it lured away the accounting and legal departments, client-relationship services, or IT support and logistics operations of a handful of those Fortune companies.
Inward investment like this is essential because the city is in intractable decline. Duluth also needs to leverage more from the assets it has. One of those is UMD. It is an economic engine that can revive the regional economy.
I propose three initiatives to structurally integrate UMD within the community, supercharging the economy by plugging the institution directly into local enterprises.
First, demolish the assorted buildings that used to house Maurices’ corporate offices and build a campus for the Labovitz business school. This would reinvigorate the upper side of the 100 block of West Superior Street with new architecture and vitality. Locating the school in the locus of Duluth’s business community would enliven the educational experience and foster links between students and local businesses, while strengthening business-to-business support. If this proves unfeasible, move the school into the Tech Village.
Second, leverage the redevelopment opportunities of Essentia Health’s Vision Northland by razing St. Mary’s Medical Center at 407 E. Third St., after it is replaced in 2023, to build a new University of Minnesota medical school. A new med school would redouble the university’s mission to be a leader in family medicine and rural health care by inviting collaboration with the Essentia Institute of Rural Health.
Finally, 10 years after it was vacated, the Central High School campus has not been sold. Its 77 acres would be an ideal research park mixed with residential, commercial, and public spaces. The Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) is chartered with fostering economic development from Minnesota’s natural resources, but I think it suffers from isolation and obscurity at its Hermantown location. It would benefit from being clustered among others engaged in applied research of freshwater, soils, forests, minerals, environmental sustainability, and green technologies. The NRRI could be both the anchor to a research park that attracts the likes of the Department of Natural Resources, the Environmental Protection Agency, 3M, and Ecolab and be an incubator for start-ups like Epicurean or Loll Designs.
Come on Duluth, pull up your socks!
Doug Pazienza is a 1988 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth, where he majored in geography and urban studies. He was a student intern in the Duluth planning department. Today, he lives on the Northumberland coast in England. He practices clinical ecopsychology as a registered counselor and psychotherapist and is an adjunct faculty member with the Earthbody Institute in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at email@example.com or eco-mindedtherapy.blogspot.com/.