Our View: Downtown rebound slowly but encouragingly beginning
From the editorial: "Many of the recommendations from the Mayor’s Downtown Task Force last year appropriately addressed public safety."
They were just three words, but an encouraging three words at a time of seeming precariousness, even a crossroads.
“Big stuff happening,” Kristi Stokes, president of the group Downtown Duluth, told the News Tribune Opinion page last week, just three short months after a task force offered 27 recommendations to help Duluth’s central business district bounce back and reinvent itself following COVID-19’s effects on how and where we work, shop, dine, and have fun.
Where 18,000 office workers once poured daily into downtown, filling it with life, activity, and business, many now continue to work from home. With less foot and other traffic and unable to bounce back from the pandemic’s shutdowns, struggling storefronts, especially along Superior Street and First Street, have shut down. And the perception of crime has only worsened, even if Duluth Police calls for service downtown have dropped with the loss of activity.
Encouragingly, though, recommendations are already beginning to be implemented, Stokes said, sparking an optimism not seen for years.
Last week, her organization announced $2,500 grants to improve storefront windows and lighting, which will help revitalize and spruce up some of our busiest streets while also improving safety. Also last week, more than 80 downtown business operators and others attended a luncheon to hear from Duluth Police Chief Mike Ceynowa about stepped-up security in public parking ramps, the Skywalk, and elsewhere. 24/7 patrols are already making a difference, Stokes said.
Additionally, plans are being made now for a summer of activities downtown, for information sessions for merchants and others, and for a housing study to help attract renters, condo owners, and others to the city’s core.
“I really feel that, for 2023, we are moving in the right direction. I think a lot of momentum is there, and I think there is better communication where all entities are working together on this instead of being siloed,” Stokes said in an interview Friday. “It just feels like everything is clicking on all cylinders right now, and that’s a really good feeling. … So many people want to be part of bringing things back.”
Or creating something different and better, against a new-reality backdrop of fewer office workers and more apartments and condos in the center of our city.
That can begin — even if in a small way — with the $2,500 grants. Merchants can use the money to add track lighting, props, decorative signs, and interesting display features. The initiative builds on a presentation in Duluth last fall with an urban strategist at which more than 120 attended to learn about attracting more customers. Money for the grants is from the Downtown Duluth group and the city’s Duluth 1200 Fund. Downtownduluth.com has information about applying.
“This program to invest in street-level windows is really about driving foot traffic and increasing interest in our beautiful downtown,” Mayor Emily Larson said in a statement. “People want to shop at places that look vibrant and exciting from the outside. They want to walk into storefronts that feel inviting on the inside. Smart, intentional windows help people sort out what’s happening inside and serve as an invitation to explore. I can’t wait to see how this program can continue to build toward a new chapter in our downtown.”
Many of the recommendations from the Mayor’s Downtown Task Force last year appropriately addressed public safety. They included 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.
Improving storefronts is a goal, in part, because “we believe that an active downtown is a vibrant and safe downtown," the task force report stated. Also, 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 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.
Duluthians can be encouraged to see recommendations beginning to be put into action. Big stuff happening? Well, it’s at least starting to.
“Business owners and downtowners feel like, ‘OK, something is being done. We can be part of that solution’,” Stokes said. “I think we’re all there because we love downtown.”