“A rising tide lifts all boats.” President John F. Kennedy didn’t pen this, but he quoted it often and it framed his outlook and policies on economic growth. Simply put, he made the case that a thriving economy created the most opportunities for all people to prosper. There have always been imperfections in its application, but there has never been a more powerful tool to lift people to better lives.
Duluth has all the assets to be a magnet for investment and development. We have four colleges in the Twin ports area. We have a leading medical center that is expanding to better serve all of northern Minnesota. And our outdoor assets and lifestyle are widely known as among the most robust in the country.
Unfortunately, we also have a reputation for being indifferent (at best) or hostile (at worst) to business and development.
Since the early 1990s, I have traveled to or worked in more than 50 countries, and I have lived overseas for several years. The energy and optimism of the growing economies in the Pacific Rim are infectious and made an impression on me.
Before I moved here, I heard that, “Duluth doesn’t like business.” In 2018, a Duluth city councilor was quoted as saying that some local business owners were “the biggest babies I have ever seen." While an individual can be forgiven for a one-off outburst, the fact is, to the best of my knowledge, no effort was ever made (either by the individual or the City Council) to walk back the sentiment. This tone still permeates policy.
There is a narrative firmly in place that being pro-business is inherently anti-environment, anti-arts, anti-Duluth, and so on. The idea that business and lifestyle are diametrically opposed is just wrong. Many cities have mastered the balance. We are primed to do the same — if we choose to.
A second and closely intertwined priority is housing. We have all heard and discussed the problems. I believe, though, that the current strategy is far too simplistic. To be sure, housing in Duluth is scarce and highly priced, but “affordable housing” is not fixed by only prioritizing low-cost, multi-unit developments. This is only part of the puzzle. There is also a huge gap in mid-price offerings with very, very few of these being built. With limited options for existing homeowners to upgrade, existing entry-level housing is not made available for new buyers. This lack of options in the middle tier will be a problem until our excessively bureaucratic and arbitrary permitting process is fixed. Again, we have heard these stories for years, but city leadership has ignored the problem. The process is in dire need of simplification, streamlining, and predictability. A permit for a new home in Duluth can cost nearly 80% more than in similarly sized cities in Minnesota, as a 2018 study by the Arrowhead Builders Association and Lake Superior Area Realtors determined.
As I have discussed the election with local leaders, I have heard a similar warning: Duluth will never elect anyone who runs on “development.” I don’t believe that to be true. To be sure, we need voices from academia and social services and we need to preserve our heritage and natural beauty. It’s time, though, for voters who want to see new energy and growth step up to elect a voice that will balance the perspectives on our City Council.
Scot Jenkins is one of eight candidates running for two open At Large seats on the Duluth City Council. Four of the candidates will advance from the Aug. 10 primary to Election Day on Nov. 2. All candidates were invited by the News Tribune Opinion page to write columns.