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Our View: Duluth redoubles despite challenges

ST. PAUL -- This would have been an easy year to scrub it, to say "get real," and to go without Duluth's annual lobbying blitz here. There are few if any public meeting spaces inside the Capitol due to the ongoing $272 million reconstruction and ...

Citizen lobbyests
Former Duluth City Councilor Jeff Anderson, an aide to Rep. Rick Nolan, high-fives Champ, the UMD mascot, Wednesday at a reception for Duluth and St. Louis County in St. Paul during the annual citizen lobbying event. (Chuck Frederick / cfrederick@duluthnews.com)

ST. PAUL - This would have been an easy year to scrub it, to say “get real,” and to go without Duluth’s annual lobbying blitz here. There are few if any public meeting spaces inside the Capitol due to the ongoing $272 million reconstruction and renovation. Most bathrooms are out of order. And the few offices and chambers that are open are connected by a maze of narrow, Sheetrock-walled tunnels.
Other communities and special interests did just that this legislative session. They canceled their citizen-lobbying events, many of them modeled after Duluth’s successful formula for gaining attention and winning favor with lawmakers and other statewide decision-makers.
Duluth, on the other hand: “We redoubled our effort,” said David Ross, president and CEO of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, the organizers of the annual Duluth and St. Louis County at the Capitol. “Rather than turning away from it, we decided to turn into it and make this the most powerful of our 18 gatherings. And we’ve done that.”
A record number of exhibitors filled the lavish ballroom at the Crown Plaza-Riverfront hotel for the event’s grand reception last night. Booth after velvet-draped booth showcased all Northeastern Minnesota has to offer, plus our successes and also our pressing needs. About 500 people were expected to attend, bettering last year’s reception turnout of 460. A shuttle between the downtown hotel and the Capitol made getting there easy for lawmakers and others from around the state, many of whom had been personally invited by Sen. Roger Reinert of Duluth and others.
More lawmakers were expected to attend for another reason, too. With public spaces at a premium inside the under-construction Capitol and fewer of these sorts of meet-and-greet public happenings, lawmakers are seizing the opportunities there are to meet with constituents.
“This is a tremendous year and opportunity to really make an impact,” Frank Ongaro of Mining Minnesota said as he and other exhibitors were still setting up yesterday. “The only way to build good relationships is face to face. We need to be here.”
“People really appreciate it when you make the effort to come and talk to them,” said Karen Anderson, board chairwoman for the Duluth chamber. “We are ready to partner with the state because we are a growing community. We are not the Duluth of the 1980s.”
State support has had a lot to do with that, and Duluth’s lobbying message to lawmakers yesterday and today includes plenty of gratitude. Recent projects benefiting from state funding have included the coming NorShor Theater revitalization, renovations at Wade Stadium, a water project for snowmaking at Spirit Mountain, and the under-construction Maurices office building downtown.
Duluth’s lobbying message includes housing and transportation needs, too, and has its eye on the future, specifically next year, which will be another bonding year. Among other wants, Duluth will be looking for $50 million from the state to help with a major reconstruction of Superior Street and a conversion, at the same time, of the heating plant in Canal Park from coal-burning to cleaner-burning biomass and from steam-producing to more-efficient hot water-heating. The time to do such a conversion is while Superior Street is ripped up anyway and century-old pipes are exposed and ripe for replacing.
“That’s my big focus this session,” Rep. Erik Simonson of Duluth told News Tribune editorial board members this week, “setting the groundwork for a good bonding bill for Duluth next year.”
Because Capitol construction still will be going on, next year’s bonding session could be a short one, perhaps even just days long - all the more reason for Duluth and St. Louis County to be a force in St. Paul this session.
“It’s even more critical than ever that we start to educate people about our projects,” said Anderson, who also cited the Superior Street/steam plant project as the biggie. “There won’t be a big window of opportunity to get things in front of people next year.”
The lobbying blitz concludes this morning with a breakfast. At least nine elected leaders are scheduled to speak, including Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and Gov. Mark Dayton; the two have sparred this session over pay raises for Dayton’s cabinet members.
About 290 attendees are registered for the breakfast, and walk-ups won’t be turned away. Last year, 250 people attended. The at least 16 percent jump is another result of doubling down this year despite the construction and challenges.
“When I first heard the announcement of a 2015 ‘Duluth Days,’ I questioned it. Is this a good year to even have it?” Ongaro said. “I’ve been hanging around the Capitol since ’77, and I get lost more today than I did in 1977. … But it’s turning out that doubling down was the right choice.”

Reception
Wednesday was the annual reception for citizen lobbyists from Duluth and St. Louis County in St. Paul. (Chuck Frederick / cfrederick@duluthnews.com)

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