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Mayor's View: After pandemic's darkness, Duluth on path to bright, prosperous future

From the column: "For the past six years, my administration has been investing in what businesses say they depend on: solid infrastructure, a reliable and qualified workforce, housing, access to child care, safe neighborhoods, and a great quality of life."

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2019 News Tribune file photo — Duluth’s western neighborhoods are bathed in morning sunlight, as seen from Skyline Parkway.
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In my State of the City address this week, I asked Duluthians to focus on the light and embrace this moment of opportunity.

I don’t want to skim over the storm we’ve weathered these past two years. People feel it in their isolation, their exhausted bones, and anxiety over their future.

But there’s also light streaming over the horizon.

From the editorial: "Duluthians can hold the mayor accountable to make good on her pledges or to at least ensure the city is doing all it can. Our business community in particular, not long ago at loggerheads with the city, has much at stake."

To meet this moment, I laid out an ambitious, holistic approach to economic development — our path to building a healthy, prosperous, sustainable, fair, and inclusive community for all neighbors across all neighborhoods.

Duluth is no longer the buffeted city knocked back by recession and deindustrialization, living in the economic shadows. We can expect and deserve more than ever before. We can drive our economic future and choose projects that are shovel worthy, not merely shovel ready.

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For the past six years, my administration has been investing in what businesses say they depend on: solid infrastructure, a reliable and qualified workforce, housing, access to child care, safe neighborhoods, and a great quality of life.

This approach has been working for people, workers, and businesses.

Street reconstruction now averages 14 miles per year, up from two miles a year when I started. We’re addressing stormwater management, replacing our 100-year-old water mains and getting lead out of our pipes. We’ve built more than 1,500 new housing units and rebuilt the Lakewalk to last. Community Policing 2.0 continues to build on the department’s innovative public-safety leadership, investing in Community Coordinated Response and conducting a department-wide racial-bias audit. Our sustainability team is working cross-departmentally toward shared goals, and we’ve reduced our municipal greenhouse-gas emissions 32% since I took office.

And last year we had a record number of building permits and a half billion dollars of investment — more than double the previous year and the third year of record investment in a row.

This is a strong foundation to build on, and we have lots more to do. Here are a few priorities for the coming year.

Tourism: We’re launching our new tourism campaign to connect Duluth visitors to amenities in neighborhoods across the city. This new approach will build around who we are — our people, our pace, and our place — and what we are proud of and what makes Duluth unapologetically unique.

Downtown: The pandemic changed the way we work and live, which impacts how we experience downtown. I’m establishing a Mayor’s Downtown Task Force and charging it with providing recommendations within five months on four key areas: safety, activation, investment, and vision.

Innovation: We can build on Duluth’s long history of innovation, and my goal is for Duluth to be the entrepreneurial engine of the state. Duluth is the first Minnesota city to partner with Heartland Forward and Builders + Backers to bring their national Idea Accelerator to our community. This program will support budding local entrepreneurs.

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Public safety: The pandemic only intensified public-safety challenges. While many of these problems reach beyond local control, we must start here. Duluth’s Police Department and City Attorney’s Office will work with partners to revive “community courts” to address chronic offenders and develop a plan specific to meet the person. It won’t address all public-safety challenges, but it takes a step toward more accountability and a healthier, stronger community.

Internet access: Reliable high-speed internet is an essential utility as important to our future as roads, water, and electricity; yet too many Duluth residents and businesses have no reasonable access. My goal is that every resident and business in the city of Duluth have access to affordable, reliable, high-quality, fiber-optic internet within six years. We will start this year with a pilot project in the Lincoln Park neighborhood to help us understand how to go to full scale.

Sustainability: Duluth is committed to “Cities Race to Zero,” making clear our intent to achieve carbon-neutrality — net zero — by 2050. In line with this pledge, we will galvanize a citywide effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions across the whole city. This is not only good for the planet but essential if we are to remain economically viable.

I know all of us are tired and frustrated after two years of pandemic. But I also know we can’t afford to let our exhaustion speak for us. Now is the beautiful dawn, when we take a deep breath, take stock of ourselves, and step out of the shadows. This is the moment we are fully prepared to meet.

Emily Larson is mayor of Duluth. She wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune.

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Duluth Mayor Emily Larson. Contributed / City of Duluth

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