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Ness reflects on years in office
Photo: Duluth Mayor Don Ness
When looking back on the last seven-plus years in Duluth’s top administrative office, Mayor Don Ness certainly has a great deal on which to reflect.
When he took office in 2008, he inherited a host of issues. The city’s infrastructure was in a state of disrepair and its finances were troubling. He also has dealt with other major issues during his tenure including Fond-du-Luth Casino and the numerous problems presented by the open sale of synthetic drugs on Superior Street.
Challenges remain, but when Ness leaves office next year, the city of Duluth will be on more solid financial ground. In addition, the city’s downtown district holds the potential of a much brighter future. There’s no single reason for his achievements, but at least some of the credit could be attributed to his unique outlook.
He came into office with an unusual vision – one that departed from confrontational and strong-arm “politics as usual.” Rather, Ness said he sought to approach politics in a way that was more “constructive and respectful.”
(I’ve often conveyed a sense of vulnerability by saying to others) “I don’t know exactly how this is supposed to work, and I’m trying to figure out what the best path forward is. So I want you to help me through that, and I’m going to stumble. But I hope that you can see my sincerity to do what’s best for this area,” Ness told BusinessNorth. “I think the neat thing looking back now is to see that Duluthians did get it and they did support it and there have been some very positive things that have emerged because of it.”
In light of his soon-to-end tenure, BusinessNorth sat down with Duluth’s mayor to discuss his achievements, the state of the city today as well as what lies ahead for him personally.
BN: The city has halved its unfunded retiree healthcare liability under your administration. How important was this issue and how did you tackle it?
Ness: This is the issue I’m most proud of and I feel really strongly about the importance of the work that was done. I first started on this issue back in 2005 when I was still on the city council and brought together the task force that created the framework for our efforts going forward. (That framework) provided the political support necessary to take on some very difficult decisions as well as to get other stakeholders – especially the unions – to buy into a comprehensive solution.
So, not only have we cut the unfunded liability in half, but more significantly, we now have a plan in place (all new employees have a defined contribution and a healthcare trust) that should be able to cap our current year expenditures at $9 million going forward until 2040, when costs actually start to decline below $9 million a year…. It really was the difference between bankruptcy and solvency.
(Moving retirees and current employees to a single healthcare plan) actually went all the way to the state Supreme Court. We prevailed. We implemented that plan. We had to overcome a lot of fear and a lot of fear tactics that were being used. Now retirees see that they have a very generous plan and they benefit from increased confidence that the plan will be there into the future.
BN: Sewer overflows into Lake Superior and the St. Louis River were another big issue. How did your administration take this on?
Ness: This has been an issue hanging over our city for decades. Important work had been done over the years in addressing it from an incremental standpoint – making improvements to the sanitary system and reducing the amount of inflow and infiltration that were causing the problems – and yet the problem persisted. In 2001, eight million gallons of untreated sewage entered Lake Superior, which was an embarrassment to our city. We were being sued by the federal government.
I think the contribution I made to this issue was to say: ‘This should not be the federal government telling us to eliminate sewer overflow. This is the most sacred responsibility of Duluthians to protect the fresh water resource… We are going to take every step necessary.’ That commitment was important to make some of the difficult decisions like the clean water surcharge, which was unpopular, but necessary, to generate those dollars.
When the federal government saw our commitment, they reduced the penalties on the city of Duluth, and those were then dollars we could direct to making improvements rather than just (paying) fines to the federal government. And, the timing was important because right after we made the commitment to solving this problem and having the framework of our plan within a consent decree, that the stimulus package passed was by Congress. It provided a significant amount of federal dollars to leverage the local investments that we were making and accelerated the process.
We’ve now not had an overflow since the flood in 2012. And, we should now be able to cancel the consent decree two years ahead of schedule.
BN: Why did the city spend so much money fighting the Fond-du-Lac Band regarding casino revenue payments? Has the ongoing battle damaged the city’s relationship with the Band?
Ness: We were protecting our rights under this contract. It was a contract that both parties went into willingly in 1994. We feel it’s critical that this contract be upheld. There is $12 million that the band has withheld from the city based on the first term of the contract, which expired in April of 2011. We have been prevailing on that question. We anticipate within the next month or two having a ruling on the band’s appeal. The moment we prevail, that’s going to be $12 million coming to the city of Duluth that we otherwise would have lost.
Yes, it’s been expensive and it’s frustrating to spend that much defending our rights under this contract…but the taxpayers will benefit from that effort.
The second term of the contract, which was to run from 2011 to 2036 – that is an open question. It can best be answered through mutual benefit for both communities. By working together, we can grow this pie to the benefit of both the band and the city through this new emerging arts and entertainment district in old downtown.
One of my greatest disappointments as mayor is that this critically important relationship has been damaged. The longer that this goes on the more difficult it will be to re-establish. We continue to stress our position that there is a solution that will work for both communities.
BN: How critical was the closing of the Last Place on Earth to the city’s future?
Ness: There was no greater threat to the health of our downtown than the open sale of synthetic drugs by Jim Carlson. I was really proud of how this community responded – that sense of commitment to the health of our downtown. It was a long-term, determined effort to win this fight when many commentators said this was a fight that Duluth was going to lose.
(It’s continued operation) would have devastated old downtown. The problem was growing broader and broader. The moment that the doors closed it got dramatically better. Now, we’re seeing the reinvestment in that area.
BN: Why did your administration prioritize revitalization of the NorShor Theater?
Ness: It’s easy for folks to forget what the NorShor was prior to the city purchasing the building. That, at the time, was an even bigger problem than the Last Place on Earth. It was a shady strip club. It was a sight of a lot of gang activity, drug dealing, prostitution and violence – on a regular basis.
That, too, was frustrating the entrepreneurial spirit in that area. There’s no question that a big part of the motivation was to eliminate a very significant problem and save an historic building that was falling apart.
Secondarily, it’s the potential of the structure once the renovations are made. This will be a site of tremendous community pride. It will bring hundreds of people into our downtown on a regular basis. We really can create the most significant arts and culture district north of the Twin Cities.
BN: Why have you made a possible new library a point of focus for your final months in office?
Ness: The key to this issue is we’ve reached a threshold point for the existing building. There are a number of capital improvements needed and they are very expensive. We have a question before our community of whether we invest in the current structure or if we look to build a library that will better meet the needs of a modern library experience.
From my perspective, there are pros and cons to both approaches. I’m approaching this with very much of a soft sell and asking the residents of Duluth to help the city and, as a community, to decide one way or the other. Whatever the will of the voters is the direction we’ll take.
I’m excited if voters choose to support the building of a new library, with the potential of building adjacent to Lake Place Park. (In addition to better connecting the downtown) it would (provide the public) with a (lake) view from a building that they own. Right now, those views are primarily privately owned.
BN: You’ve made a point of attracting young professionals to the city. What have you done to draw this demographic and how successful have the efforts been?
Ness: My priority has been to have a healthy mix within the demographics in the city of Duluth. That remains our focus. When I was first elected to the city council in 1999, we were out of balance. We were an older community than the state average and we were in danger of becoming a dying community.
Our challenge today is both to be attractive to young professionals but also to make a concerted effort to retain this new generation of retirees that is redefining retirement. Boomers provide tremendous value (though continued engagement and giving back) to whatever communities that they choose.
The combination of retaining retirees and at the same time bringing in the next generation workers to fill the jobs retirees are leaving are the keys to population growth and a healthy vibrant community. Duluth is doing a much better job of making a case to young people to stay. (The city) is both providing more professional jobs that can sustain families as well as cultural opportunities that give these young people a sense of connection and ownership in Duluth that wasn’t present when I was in my 20s.
We’re now seeing a very tangible result. In the last five years, Duluth’s population between the (ages of) 25 and 34 has increased 20 percent. These are college students that are sticking and making a commitment to Duluth.
BN: Is the aviation industry Duluth’s biggest growth opportunity?
Ness: Yes, I think so. You need those industries (such as aviation) that bring outside dollars into our community. Aviation is clearly a niche that has potential to grow significantly. Cirrus, in combination with AAR and potentially Kestrel, provides an industry niche that then gives people more confidence in choosing aviation as a career.
The new jet that Cirrus is developing is something that Duluth can hold up with great pride to the rest of the world and say ‘this kind of innovation and technology is coming from Duluth, Minnesota. That should be part of our brand.’
BN: What’s the worst part of your job?
Ness: Having to make decisions that disappoint friends and people that I respect. In advocating for the interests of the community, sometimes you step on toes. Some politicians love the fight. I’ve always hated it but understand that it’s sometimes necessary.
BN: What’s the best part of your job?
Ness: I think the thing I love about the job is the ability to think broadly and strategically and, through an understanding of its strengths, to find opportunities. I feel grateful to be mayor at a time when Duluthians are finally starting to believe that good things can happen in our city, are willing to take risks and are willing to invest back into this community. The strength that I’ve been able to bring to that larger team effort is that creative thinking to say: ‘If we combine these things together what can this look like going forward?’
BN: What’s your biggest accomplishment?
Ness: Fixing the city’s finances. Retiree healthcare was an important part of that (but also was) going from persistent $4 to $6 million deficits year after year and eliminating those deficits. Going from a budget reserve of a negative -$5.1 million in 2008 to now an $8 million general reserve. Increasing our credit rating by both agencies. That’s the thing that I’m most proud of, and it’s definitely (been) a team effort.
BN: What’s the biggest piece of unfinished business?
Ness: Resolving the casino issue is clearly one. Having a sustainable program to invest in our streets is something that has not been accomplished and needs to be accomplished. And, then the efforts in the St. Louis River corridor and in West Duluth – we’re putting together that framework and there’s a tremendous amount of energy to seeing this through. But, most of the work will be done after I leave office and that’s always a struggle. I’m trying to get as much done as I possibly can this year but also preparing myself to let go and to trust new leadership… to move these projects forward in ways that I haven’t been able to.
BN: Do you have any hopes for your successor?
Ness: I bring certain interests and skill sets to the table and yet I recognize that after eight years in office, the strengths I have now have diminishing returns. And, so to bring someone in who will be headed, I hope, in a similar direction but with new skill sets and new energy could really propel Duluth forward.
My role has been one of transition. Over the course of eight years we’ve solved some big issues and there’s been newfound optimism and confidence. That’s starting to translate into investment and a new way of thinking about our community – but we’re only in the very beginning stages. I think the opportunity the new mayor has is... to step into a healthier city and to take that and to accelerate that positive movement.
BN: What’s next for you personally?
Ness: I wish I knew. A couple of months ago, I wasn’t really worried about it. Now, we’re at nine and one-half months and I certainly can’t afford to have a gap in between this job ending and the next thing starting because I have a young family to support. Hopefully things will work out. As a generalist with a lot of different interests, that opens a lot of potential. It’s a matter of finding the right opportunity at the right time.Previous BusinessNorth Exclusives Articles:
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