Our view: No apologies: Cash in on Duluth’s outdoors

It used to be Duluthians felt the need to apologize when traveling and someone found out where they were from. Yup, super cold. Post-industrial. Bit of a wasteland. Sorry, eh.Not so much anymore."We have reframed the argument," declared Hansi Joh...

Borealis Bikes co-owner Adam Miller of Colorado Springs, Colo., rides his fat bike on the Duluth Traverse trail in Lester Park in November 2014 to warm up before setting up a fat bike demo. (2014 file / News Tribune)

It used to be Duluthians felt the need to apologize when traveling and someone found out where they were from. Yup, super cold. Post-industrial. Bit of a wasteland. Sorry, eh.
Not so much anymore.
“We have reframed the argument,” declared Hansi Johnson, Duluth’s “outdoors czar,” as the chamber’s David Ross called him at a luncheon Tuesday that featured Johnson as speaker.
After traveling the world for work for Wenonah Canoe, Patagonia outdoor clothing and gear, and the International Mountain Biking Association - and skiing, paddling, hiking and pretty much playing at every stop - Johnson jumped at a chance to work for the Minnesota Land Trust two years ago when it won a contract with the city of Duluth to market and promote our trails and our outdoor recreational activities and opportunities.
Too many people “just don’t seem to understand what I (understand) about (Duluth),” Johnson said at the luncheon, at Clyde Iron. “I go to all these wonderful places and all these amazing exotic locations and I always looked forward to coming home because I realized how awesome it was here.”
Duluth nowadays, Johnson said, is “young. It’s vibrant. We have all this terrain. We have, like, interesting things going on. People are getting involved. We can do just about every sport I can imagine all within the city limits, literally within the city limits. Kids. Families. Tons of terrain, you know; it’s not a flat place. There’s lots of area. We have 11,000 acres of green space that have interconnected trail. We have an amazing river that comes right through our town. We’ve got places where you can climb. Obviously, we have an amazing lake as well.”
“I’m really interested in selling a lifestyle,” Johnson said further. “I’m really interested in selling … being outside.”
Skiing is a $4.6 billion-a-year industry. Duluth is effectively tapping into it, according to Johnson. Outdoor recreation means $730 billion a year to the U.S. economy. Duluth is getting its share of that, too.
And others elsewhere are noticing. Our reputation is changing. Duluthians can travel with pride now rather than trepidation. Last year alone Duluth was featured in 17 national magazines, many of them touting our meandering wealth of mountain biking trails. And, as everyone seems to know by now, in 2014, Duluth was named best outdoor city in America by Outside magazine.
“That didn’t just happen,” Johnson said, referring to the organized effort to win Duluth online votes for the honor, which was led by his Minnesota Land Trust, Visit Duluth and others. “We put it together pretty fast. To me, the fact that we did that … and won our first time out shows the power of our argument as far as what we have here. … There are a lot of people out there who love what we have. Those are the people we need to talk to. Those are the people we need.”
Duluth is far from alone in trying to attract outdoor enthusiasts. Others also cashing in include Chattanooga, Tenn.; Boulder, Colo.; and Boise, Idaho.
“But I truly can’t think of another community in the United States that has as much (outdoor recreation) within its city limits. I really can’t,” Johnson said. “So as far as having a competitive edge, this is something that we can tout, we can push.”
And can continue to push as the St. Louis River Corridor Initiative develops, including a natural water trail along the river, a cross-city hiking and biking trail (the “Duluth Traverse”), and a rock-climbing and ice-climbing playground in West Duluth known as Quarry Park.
We’re reimagining. Old industrial plots that not long ago were just unsightly wastelands are becoming tomorrow’s Quarry Parks. Brutal winter weather is being embraced with the right gear and toys. And outdoors enthusiasts are coming. They’re spending money. Or they’re staying and giving back to the community.
“That idea of reframing the argument and talking about our strengths, especially with the outdoor side of things, is really starting to resonate,” Johnson said. “You can’t get more authentic than Duluth.”
Apologize for that? “That’s just not right,” as he said.

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