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Our View: The power of preservation getting a boost in Duluth

From the editorial: "Rethos plans to establish an office in Duluth in July, stepping up its sharing of expertise here and its ability to attract dollars to save and restore old places. Its presence in Duluth promises to bolster the economic-development power of historic preservation throughout the Northland."

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The rebirth of Duluth’s Lincoln Park Craft District was helped along by Rethos, a St. Paul-based nonprofit dedicated to preserving and reusing old buildings. Rethos plans to open an office in Duluth this summer to bolster its historic-preservation work here.<br/><br/>
2017 photo contributed by Shannon Laing
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It’s safe to say that without the nonprofit Preservation Alliance of Minnesota — known now as Rethos, after a rebranding two years ago — historic Northland landmarks like the NorShor Theater in Duluth, Ely’s Historic State Theater, and more, including countless old houses, likely wouldn’t have been saved and would have been lost to history.

There’s certainly no denying Rethos’ role, via its Main Street program, in the continuing rebirth of the Lincoln Park Craft District.

So it can be seen as utterly good news and as a positive for all of Northeastern Minnesota that Rethos plans to establish an office in Duluth in July, stepping up its sharing of expertise here and its ability to attract dollars to save and restore old places. Its presence in Duluth promises to bolster the economic-development power of historic preservation throughout the Northland while saving even more of our priceless pieces of the past, the structures and places that define us and that contribute to what makes our communities unique and special.

“It just seemed that we kept, as a team, coming back to conversations around projects in Duluth. … We realized that we need an easier reach and a better reach up into northern Minnesota,” Rethos Executive Director Heidi Swank said in an interview this month with the News Tribune Editorial Board. “Historic preservation touches on people’s lives and the ways they see themselves and their communities, so we would love to be part of those communities (in Northeastern Minnesota) and be a support for the things that are important for the people.”

Rethos right now has offices in St. Paul and Winona, Minnesota. In Duluth, Rethos is still searching for a landing place, perhaps shared office space with another nonprofit. It expects to have one staffer stationed in Duluth to begin with, who’ll lead the preservation work here and also serve as a liaison to city councils and others.

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Expect the staffer to look also to the Iron Range and its many historic downtowns as prime candidates for its Main Street program. The program uses historic preservation as a central strategy for revitalizing small-city downtowns — and, now, commercial areas, too, beginning with Duluth’s Lincoln Park. Don’t be surprised if that's where Rethos’ Duluth office ends up being located.

“This will give them an opportunity to sort of expand their reach here,” Main Street Lincoln Park Program Director Shannon Laing said in an interview last week with the News Tribune Opinion page. “(With Lincoln Park) being a newly minted Minnesota Main Street community, we are excited about the prospect of having a Rethos office here in Duluth. They already provide workshops and learning opportunities here, so it makes sense that they would expand here. …

“Aside from having that long-term, institutional knowledge and their mission to preserve older buildings and to really be encouraging cities both from a reuse standpoint as well as a uniqueness standpoint, (Rethos) really lends itself to preserving the characters of our neighborhoods,” Laing said.

In Duluth, Rethos is presently working with Saturday Properties, the St. Louis Park, Minnesota, developer that recently purchased Historic Old Central from the Duluth school district and is working to convert the treasured Duluth landmark largely into apartments. Rethos also has long been involved in the efforts to restore and find a modern use for the Duluth Armory on London Road, a project that received a huge boost at the end of 2021 when Twin Cities developer George Sherman signed on.

Historic preservation is shifting, the nonprofit said, from saving not only grand structures but more modest ones, too, which not only keeps them out of landfills but allows them to continue to help tell fuller stories about our communities.

A great example is St. Peter’s Caholic Church, built in the 1920s in Duluth’s Little Italy neighborhood by the same Italian immigrant stonemasons who built foundations for mansions in the east end and sturdy retaining walls across Duluth’s hillside. They decided their families needed a place of worship. Closed by the diocese, the church was nearly torn down a few years ago before being renovated and reopened as the Great Lakes Academy of Fine Arts.

“It’s a really fantastic use of an amazing sanctuary space and one that's really inspiring for the artists,” Rethos Deputy Director Erin Hanafin Berg told editorial board members. “Historic preservation has gotten much better at recognizing that not everybody lives in a fancy old mansion. Not everybody works in a high-rise office building downtown. (We need to do a better job of) telling the stories of ordinary Americans, people who are working and living in more humble neighborhoods, who go to a factory, or who do a labor that is part of our American story. We need to do a better job preserving the places that are associated with those stories, too, because they’re still part of our society and culture, and they should be recognized and preserved also.”

With Rethos’ coming arrival in Duluth, more of northern Minnesota’s stories and structures from times past can be saved and celebrated while also boosting economic activity, attracting investment, and preserving important old places.

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That can only be seen as a positive — and as utterly good news.

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