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Our View: Council up next to help save historic jail

From the editorial: "There’s some urgency here. With timely City Council approval, redevelopment work can begin by August or September."

File: Grant Carlson
Developer Grant Carlson tours the former St. Louis County Jail in October 2010. (Bob King / File / News Tribune)
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It wasn’t that long ago, just 12 years ago, when Duluthians found themselves bracing for what seemed the inevitable demolition and loss of an historic and architectural treasure, the marble, stately one-time St. Louis County Jail, built in 1923 as the fourth and final piece of our Civic Center.

In 2009, St. Louis County proposed tearing down the landmark, which it was no longer using.

Last week, the Duluth Economic Development Authority voted unanimously to help save it by helping to make reality plans to convert it into 34 units of studio and one- and two-bedroom apartments, at least four of them affordable to households earning less than 60% of the area median income. DEDA commissioners backed a reasonable $1.2 million in tax increment financing for what’s shaping up to be an $8.26 million investment in our community. The conversion project promises to responsibly preserve an important piece of our past while also providing badly needed housing — and in downtown, too, which could use the jolt.

Public support is appropriate, and the Duluth City Council is up next to provide it by also signing off on TIF financing. Our elected councilors can jump at their first chance to do so.

TIF is a type of business subsidy that uses new tax dollars generated by a development over a set period of time, 26 years in this instance, to cover costs that otherwise would threaten to sink a project. The new private owners of the old jail — Grant Carlson, Jon Commers, and Meghan Elliott, who formed New Burnham LLC for the endeavor — referred to the TIF assistance as "essential" and its approval as "a really significant step," the News Tribune reported last week.

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Additional financing is to include more than $2.5 million in federal and state historic tax credits, which require the building to be back in use by the end of next year. So there’s some urgency here. With timely City Council approval, redevelopment work can begin by August or September and then continue through winter.

The old jail, set back from a circle drive that connects the St. Louis County Courthouse, the federal Courthouse and Customs House, and Duluth City Hall, hasn’t housed prisoners since 1995. It remains an integral part of the complex, however, and its loss would be significant. Its new owners once considered converting the jail into offices. Housing fills a more pressing city need.

Duluth’s Civic Center landed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. The cluster of government buildings was designed by celebrated American architect Daniel Burnham, the same Daniel Burnham who popularized neoclassical architecture in the early 20th century with his "White City," the centerpiece of the 1892 World's Fair in Chicago. Duluth's Civic Center remains one of Minnesota's premier examples of our nation's City Beautiful Movement of the early 1900s.

"The jail building is an important part of Duluth's rich architectural heritage," Duluth Heritage Preservation Commission Chairwoman Penny Clark said in a statement in 2010, her words no less true today. “We look forward to working with the new owner to (ensure) that the building will retain its historic integrity as it is adaptively reused and put back to productive use."

Thanks to Carlson — who first took a chance on the old jail by purchasing it following its condemnation by the county — his partners, DEDA, and, soon, the Duluth City Council, the hope and dream for a new life for an old structure remains in play. It can be embraced by all Duluthians who care about their community’s treasures and heritage.

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