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Ness promotes river agenda, need for new tax
PHOTO: Mayor Don Ness, left, takes a question from Roger Wedin, Chamber director of policy and education.
Duluth has done an excellent job of developing traditional tourism attractions but must expand that base by offering new, more-active opportunities that attract a younger generation, Mayor Don Ness said Tuesday in promoting his plan to develop the St. Louis River Corridor.
His comments came a week in advance of hearings that will address the possible imposition of a 1 percent sales tax to fund projects related to western Duluth development projects. A city plan calls for new retail, industrial and housing development plus an expansion of trails and water-related amenities. To generate funds, Minnesota legislators have OK’s a one-half percent tax on restaurant sales and a one-half percent tax on lodging, but final approval is subject to city council review, which will occur after public comment is received.
“We wouldn’t be bringing this forward if we didn’t believe it’s an important step to round out the tourism experience this city offers,” Ness said at a morning breakfast forum sponsored by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce and Duluth News Tribune. “We have a wonderful experience down in Canal Park and in our downtown, but I can tell you that those who are starting to take vacations in my generation and in younger generations are looking for active, experiential vacations. They want to get out on trails. They want to be on a mountain bike, in a kayak and get around our beautiful estuary.”
State lawmakers have limited the sales tax to generate a maximum of $18 million before it sunsets in 15 years. The city administration hopes to issue a bond to secure investment capital up front, then repay it with the sales tax proceeds. Ness hopes the money will leverage $30 million worth of investment when private contributions and grants are added to the mix.
The tax is a revised version of a previous one that has sunsetted, said Anna Tanski, president and CEO of Visit Duluth.
“… New taxes are not without pain. But we hope, and even anticipate, that with this investment by our hospitality partners it will really enhance our overall destination,” she said. If city councilors approve the tax, Tanski added, Visit Duluth will “kick it into high gear to ensure that we are attracting new visitors to this community to take advantage of new amenities this project will bring on board.”
Beyond tourism, the plan also is designed to offer recreational opportunities that attract new young residents to West Duluth, Ness said.
“This would help resolve a pretty significant problem in our community with the imbalance of where families are living,” the mayor said. “We see it in school population numbers. We definitely need to be more deliberate about getting more young families into the West Duluth neighborhood to create a more healthy balance in school population as well as the health of these neighborhoods.”
The plan is a “dream come true,” said Will Munger, owner of the Willard Munger Inn, 7408 Grand Ave. Along the St. Louis River, “You feel almost like you’re in the Boundary Waters.”
Carol Valentini, owner of Valentini’s Vicino Lago, said restaurateurs watch new food and beverage taxes closely, adding “I think this idea is fantastic for Duluth. I commend you as mayor and all the people in this community who have the vision to change Duluth and look forward.”
Ness further called for an aggressive effort to finalize cleanup efforts in far western Duluth, where numerous industries formerly dumped toxic waste into the river. He also reiterated the need to identify local money that can match state funding for Wade Stadium improvements and to construct a dedicated water pipeline for Spirit Mountain snow-making operations. Without the new water line, he said, existing water pipes might not be capable of providing a sufficient supply of water potential new western Duluth industries.
“We’re looking for a very intensive effort to engage stakeholders” and identify the multiple possibilities for the St. Louis River corridor, the mayor said.
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