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Local view: OK, Duluth is a college town, but can it be more?

One of the most exciting aspects of the recently approved Higher Ed Small Area Plan, love it or hate it, is its potential to finally advance the conversation about neighborhood development among homeowners, college students, landlords, the univer...

Michael Kooi

One of the most exciting aspects of the recently approved Higher Ed Small Area Plan, love it or hate it, is its potential to finally advance the conversation about neighborhood development among homeowners, college students, landlords, the universities and the city beyond their respective feedback loops. It will create room for new dialogue about the priorities that logically follow.

Of course, the HEP process is just beginning, and many details remain in flux. But by making

student-centered development its primary focus (its lip service about protecting single-family neighborhoods aside), the plan almost certainly will accelerate change in its targeted neighborhoods. In the process, it will test nearly every competing stakeholder assumption and prediction about their futures.

A slew of suspicions either will be validated or invalidated. Fears will be realized or repudiated. And arguments finally will be settled, even if the winners of those arguments end up losers in the larger picture. Everyone will have to move on.

The prospect of progress -- if not quite closure -- must offer some measure of relief for most of the folks involved, even those who fear the worst. Many of them have told me they feel like they've been having the same conversation over and over for more than a decade.

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I've only been a homeowner in the plan area for three years, but sitting in on Fuse Duluth's Topics on Tap: "College Town" discussion Wednesday at Tycoon's Alehouse, I began to relate.

The question-and-answer session between City Councilor Dan Hartman, University of Minnesota Duluth student Kelly Kemper, Apartment and Home Advisors' Susie Lannon, and the 30 or so attendees once again covered nearly all of the "Great College Town Debate's" greatest hits: students' desire for a true "campus town" district of housing, bars and restaurants; a parking policy as a proxy tool for regulating the rental market; encouraging students to walk and bike instead of driving; and even the age-old question of whether proximity to rental properties lowers the property value of a single-family home.

In almost every case, the panelists pointed to some element in the Higher Ed Plan developed to address the issue. That was a testament to its comprehensiveness.

Instead of detailing these arguments again, I'd rather focus on where the conversation didn't go on Wednesday -- but where it must go next if we are going to fully realize the Higher Ed Plan's full potential. That is, what Duluth must do to keep college students in town after they graduate.

Here, the HEP's underlying premise is fairly straightforward: If students enjoy their college experiences in Duluth and feel they're part of the community they will be less apt to leave or, alternatively, more apt to return when they're ready to settle down and start families.

Unfortunately, Duluth's dearth of high-quality, high-paying, white-collar jobs complicates matters. For decades now, students and residents have had to leave town to find the jobs for which they went to school. This has created a donut hole in the city's demographics between its college students and its large population of baby boomers and up.

Ironically, I believe this phenomenon fomented some of the issues the HEP aims to address. In a healthy economy, these missing 25- to 35-year-old young professionals actually would compete with students for the city's middle-market rental stock. This would create additional incentives for landlords to maintain or upgrade properties above "college grade." And it would spur developers to build new rental stock -- perhaps even to the point where they, as opposed to the city, would spend the money to level the condemned structures glutting what should be prime real estate in the city's center.

These young professionals also would compete with rental companies for houses in the hillside and Lincoln Park neighborhoods. In other cities, Duluth's abundance of two- and three-bedroom houses make for perfect starter homes for young, married couples who have the time, money and energy to rehab them.

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In the process, these professionals might provide a buffer or a bridge for the generation gaps and lifestyle frictions the Higher Ed Plan aims to mitigate within the campus neighborhoods.

So how can we create or lure the types of jobs to Duluth that will keep college grads here? I wish I knew. But I'm pretty sure it starts with an effort as comprehensive and ambitious as the one that produced the Higher Ed Plan, flaws and all.

It's time to move on. And forward.

Michael Kooi is a freelance writer and resident of Duluth's East Hillside neighborhood. He writes about Duluth at dulu-sions.areavoices.com . He wrote this exclusively for the News Tribune.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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