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Business North - The Daily Briefing - Business Newspaper Online
Opinions divided on redeveloping Minnesota Slip
PHOTO: Duluth Mayor Don Ness, left, and Chamber Director David Ross.
A controversial plan to revamp part of Duluth’s waterfront remained contentious Tuesday during a presentation by Mayor Don Ness.
Expensive ongoing infrastructure repairs plus the need to remove underwater contaminants justify his proposal to fill Minnesota Slip and move the S.S. William A. Irvin and commercial anglers upstream, Ness told a Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce event co-sponsored by the Duluth News Tribune.
While some in the business community support his suggestion, others say it would diminish the waterfront experience for people who visit the city.
“The idea with this vision was to take a big step forward and get people thinking outside of the box,” Ness said, “getting to a point where we solve some problems and save residents of Duluth a significant amount of money.”
Ongoing problems near Minnesota Slip include the development of sink holes (caused by deteriorating seawalls) near a sidewalk parallel to the Irvin, and breakdowns of the pedestrian bridge that crosses the slip. Incremental repairs, the mayor said, are expensive and aren’t permanent. The Minnesota Legislature, he added, leans toward contributing money toward big new projects but seldom toward repairing existing infrastructure.
Looking at another aspect of the proposed project, Ness said 275 parking spots could be created by filling in Minnesota Slip and moving its vessels upstream, likely to a new marina at Pier B, where developers hope to construct a new hotel.
The city, however, only owns the land on the west side of the slip. Property on the east is privately owned. Ness said he’s had informal conversations with those stakeholders, including interests representing the Meierhoff family and Grandma’s Restaurant Co.
“It is difficult and in some ways it can be frustrating,” the mayor said. “I get it. I understand why folks have to advocate for their interests. But when it gets to the point where they’re working against the plan because it benefits somebody else, that’s when it gets discouraging – or when the concerns become so narrow that it’s essentially shutting down a project or even the prospects of addressing a lot of big problems.
"…Sometimes, the interests get pretty small and petty in my mind,” Ness added. “That can be frustrating for me, but it’s also an important part of this process, and the plan will be better in the end.”
Some business owners said the problems are being exaggerated.
“I don’t think very many tourists are unhappy when the blue bridge goes up. On the contrary, when the bridges goes up, tourists literally run there to see what happens,” said Michael Bolen, owner of Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory in Canal Park. “I don’t think tourists come to Duluth to look at parking lots. They come to Duluth to look at water. We have built a tourism industry on that. I’ve never not found a parking place in the 12 years I’ve been there. I think the concern about parking is overrated. The walkway is fantastic. Filling in the slip would do damage to the tourist experience. I think you’re making a mistake.”
Dale Lewis, president of Park State Bank, also said parking is usually available. A former member of the Duluth Economic Development Authority, she cited a lessen she once learned at a seminar about waterfront development.
“Every foot of waterfront is precious and people want to be by the water. People come to see the ships, not to see other tourists,” Lewis said.
Justin Steinbach, who owns Vista Cruises Inc., said the new DECC parking ramp usually has excess space available when parking is tight in Canal Park.
“The Pauluccis, the Meierhoffs and the DECC are all big names…but my wife and I, and all the other small merchants down there, will be heavily impacted by this, along with the charter boat owners. Have you taken any steps to get all those people in a room to get their input?” he asked the mayor.
Ness admitted he’s not promoting the project through a traditional planning process of starting from scratch and seeking concensus.
“What you get (using that method) is tweaking at the margins because everybody has their interest and it’s going to be reflected in this plan,” he said. “We’re trying something different – getting all the way out here and then finding ways to address concerns and scale this back. I think through this process, we can get to a bigger vision.
“We are begging people to come up with a better plan than this to save people money, address major problems that exist and are getting worse, and improve the visitor experience and refresh this area,” the mayor added.
Bill Bennett, president of LHB, said the proposals represents a good start.
“I support the concept. I think it will increase the business and tourist experience. I don’t think it’s perfect yet, and I’d like to encourage us to rally around a plan that we can do,” he said.
Ness hopes to introduce a revised version of his plan sometime this winter then seek public input. He wants to take a major step forward in 2014 by offering a plan for those who own land in Minnesota Slip or who own a business that would be affected by filling the slip.
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