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Our View: Don't ignore recommendations for downtown Duluth

From the editorial: "The report may come off as a bit underwhelming, with many of its recommendations common-sense and obvious for six full months of work. But it’s also quite an ambitious blueprint that’s worthy of our aggressive pursuit."

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2020 News Tribune file photo / Downtown Duluth was cleared out by COVID-19. This midday photo was made during a stay-at-home order in April 2020.
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Like downtowns everywhere, Duluth’s is a far different place as a result of COVID-19. Many of the 18,000 workers who poured into downtown offices daily before the pandemic now work from home. Struggling storefronts, especially along Superior Street and First Street, have closed. And crime is now rampant.

Actually, that last one isn’t quite true. In 2019, before the pandemic, Duluth Police responded to 9,408 calls for service downtown. Last year that number had dropped by almost a fourth to 7,236. And this year’s 9,273 police responses are still below pre-pandemic levels.

Of course, “perception of safety is as important as actual safety,” as Mayor Emily Larson stated last week in releasing an 18-page report from a task force charged with guiding Duluth’s downtown into a future of new realities and unprecedented challenges.

The report may come off as a bit underwhelming, with many of its recommendations common-sense and obvious for six full months of work. But it’s also quite an ambitious blueprint that’s worthy of our aggressive pursuit.

“Our downtown is too special to allow for any erosion of progress and growth,” the mayor stated. “With the challenging intersection all downtowns across the country are experiencing currently, we needed to convene some of our best thinkers and doers to reposition ourselves for long-term prosperity within this neighborhood.”

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"For Duluth to grow and thrive, our downtown must lead the way and overcome the current challenges we face together,” one of those thinkers and doers, City Council President Arik Forsman, a member of the Downtown Task Force, stated. “I look forward to working with my fellow city councilors to reinforce and adopt policies that align with the outcomes the task force has identified that we need — improved safety, increased activation, a clearly articulated vision, and accelerated investment in the heart of our city."

Others on the task force included elected officials, city staffers, and business and nonprofit representatives. While law enforcement, which deals with crime and public safety matters daily downtown, wasn’t offered a seat — which a News Tribune editorial criticized in July — the task force did at least consult with the Duluth police chief and retired chief, the city attorney, assistant county attorney, and others, tapping into their expertise, as the report pointed out.

The report offers 27 recommendations in four categories, with the majority, appropriately, addressing matters of public safety, things like adding a city prosecutor, filling vacant police positions, increasing focus on chronic offenders to hold them accountable, continuing to have an outreach worker downtown, prioritizing and enhancing mental health responses, lobbying the state for more chemical and mental health services, cracking down on aggressive panhandling (while acknowledging that nonaggressive panhandling is protected free speech), better responding to homeless encampments, lighting dark areas like alleys, and addressing housing.

Because “we believe that an active downtown is a vibrant and safe downtown,” the task force also recommended improving storefronts and establishing a neighborhood watch program.

And because “downtown is the economic engine of the community” and investing in its long-term success “is an investment in the success of the entire city,” the task force additionally recommended targeting vacant buildings, blight, and graffiti; focusing on skywalk operations and safety; evaluating parking; increasing downtown housing; prioritizing economic and business development; and addressing City Hall permitting concerns.

While the task force didn’t identify funding sources for any of its recommendations, a huge ongoing challenge, it did assign responsibility for each and timelines for getting them all done. For example, holding accountable chronic offenders should happen immediately and is the responsibility of the city and county attorney’s offices as well as the courts, police, and St. Louis County Health and Human Services, according to the report.

“Downtown is the heart of our community,” task force co-chair Kristi Stokes, president of the group Downtown Duluth, stated. “While we have faced challenges from the pandemic and road construction, we know we are on a positive path with increased support and tangible recommendations.”

For each of those tangible recommendations, the public deserves measurable outcomes and regular progress reports — even, or perhaps especially, for those to-do items that may seem obvious or common sense.

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For the future of downtown — and the entire Duluth region by extension — needs now identified cannot afford to be ignored.

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