Come on Duluth, pull your socks up!

Looking at Duluth in isolation, it has shrunk by 20 percent since 1960. In real terms, Duluth netted a population loss far greater when viewed in a regional context that accounts for the modest growth rates of Fargo, Rochester and Sioux Falls cited in the article. Had Duluth kept pace with those cities since 1960, Duluth would today have a population of 300,000. A nice sized, comfortable metro city.

Why doesn’t Duluth work?

12 Comments

Jacob Jacobson

about 2 months ago

You have to know something's wrong when Sioux Falls is outpacing an inland Port community with access to world markets via the St. Lawrence Seaway. When I moved to Duluth in 1967, the population was somewhere around 102-thousand folks. Then, U.S. Steel bailed and the community wobbled. Folks were bailing-out like rats from the sinking Paul Tregurtha ore boat. Granted, the steel mill closure was huge, but the leadership of the time seemed to lack imagination and a lack of imagination is poisonous to growth.

Dave Sorensen

about 2 months ago

"Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell."
- Edward Abbey

Kodiak

about 2 months ago

The poster and the writer are definitely not advocating for growth for growth's sake. There is sustainability in the article writer's argument if you would but see. A half empty city, as Duluth is, with myriad brownfield sites is profligately wasteful especially when natural growth is occurring simultaneously in less optimal places.

secretseasons

about 2 months ago

Maybe I'm misreading it --- is the article author unaware that UMD has a medical school already?

Kodiak

about 2 months ago

The writer argues for a “new” med school to be built in 2023 on the site of the current St. Mary’s Medical Center after the new St. Mary’s opens between East Superior Street and East Second Street and North Fourth Avenue East. There is implied understanding that readers know the University of Minnesota Medical School is currently on the UMD campus.

Karl Schuettler

about 2 months ago

Was this written as bait for me?

1. It's a bit misleading to say "Duluth has 20% of its population since 1960" when all of that loss was in the first 30 years of that 60-year window. The flat trendline since isn't exactly indicative of a robust economy, but the decline is a distant memory.

2. We need to talk about why that population loss happened: Duluth was caught up in one of the greatest economic disruptions of the modern era when the Midwest/Great Lakes manufacturing base collapsed over the second half of the 20th century. Rochester, Sioux Falls, and Fargo saw none of that. They are farm towns, and also either a) the economic centers of their respective states, or b) home to a world-renowned medical institution. Better comparisons for Duluth are places like Flint, Youngstown, Erie, and South Bend: small industrial cities that are within a couple hours of other large markets. Duluth's recent history actually looks pretty decent in that light, though not always for thrilling reasons. (You can find me blathering about this in Saturday Essays on here in the past.)

3. Since the 1980s, Duluth's economy has actually become pretty diverse, largely out of necessity. The article doesn't mention health care, which has become by far the largest employer in the Duluth area. Education is a big employer, and there's a decent base of professional services serving a larger region. Duluth's manufacturing employment is actually relatively low compared to many comparable cities, though advanced manufacturing (requiring somewhat more skilled labor less easily offshored) has been a real area of growth nationally and has been an area of some success locally (e.g., Cirrus, Loll/Epicurian, Frost River). Aviation was an intentional effort to diversify, and while it has obviously taken its lumps during the pandemic, that was nearly impossible to predict and the longer-term prognosis for that industry is not bad. Tourism-related industries don't pay well, granted, but they are growing and have spillover effects on quality of life; that sector has rebounded well from the initial pandemic crash, and I don't see it slowing down. There's some good variety in the local economy.

4. I won't dispute that there's a hole in the information/tech industry area, but reality is that said industry is intensely clustered in a handful of very large metros. It seems like the more accurate critique is not that Duluth's economy isn't diverse, but that it lacks tech jobs, which are very different things. More here would be great, but that takes either very specific investments and/or just dumb luck in getting a very successful firm or firms in that space. They call the successful ones unicorns for a reason.

5. I don't disagree that UMD could be more of an engine for growth and have a stronger relationship with local economic development. I'd love to see all those proposed projects happen! But non-flagship public universities aren't exactly rolling in the dough these days, either. 

6. It's very easy to play Sim City and say "we should redevelop this as that!" when redevelopment of a building is often very expensive, between the costs of demolition, retrofitting, dealing with legacy issues in the soil, and so on. It's much more cost-effective to build new, and even then, Duluth invites all sorts of exciting challenges such as bedrock and slopes and wetlands everywhere. This is not a cheap place to build, whereas Fargo and Sioux Falls can just roll in and annex the next farm field.

I could go on and on, but I'll contain myself!

Kodiak

about 2 months ago

@Karl

You're clearly passionate for Duluth. Most of us on PDD are, too. That's why we're here. The writer clearly intended to provoke critical thought, reflection and a community conversation. OpEds are limited to 600 words. The author has to pick and choose the bits needed to argue the case. All submissions have to fit within the newspaper's parameters -- and they include editorial criteria. 

1. There's nothing misleading. In fact, the PDD blurb expanded on what the column didn't state. Those cities nearly tripled. Had Duluth tripled it would be hovering around 300k population. Four generations have been lost since 1960. The figures speak for themselves.

2. Yes by all means. We need that conversation. But that conversation has grown stale and much of it is stuck in archaic facts that are neither useful nor relevant today. The Rust Belt, a moniker I don't particularly like, was a phenomenon that occurred circa 1980. The world has moved on and the conversation needs to as well.

3. Healthcare was explicitly cited in the DNT column. "Vision Northland," "St. Mary's Medical Center" and "University of Minnesota Medical School." Clearly the writer has a grip on the current reorganization of the med district, the investments by the two leading healthcare systems and the UMN Med School's program.

4. I did not see anything in the DNT article that pushed for tech per se. I mean, everything today has technology to a certain extent. Also, you are wrong about it being "clustered in large metros." Boulder, Colo; Boise, Idaho; Fargo, N.D. have grown their cities on tech. Microsoft bought Great Plains Software -- founded in Fargo and has between 1500 and 2000 staff based in Fargo.

5. Universities are bruised from the turmoil caused by the coronavirus pandemic. No doubt. They can either invest in themselves or not and that can be through state issued bonds or U reserves. The UMN/UMD projects in the article require the support of UMD execs, the UMN Board of Regents and UMN President, area legislators, the Duluth School Board, Essentia Health execs, the Duluth mayor and council, etc... It takes a village

6. That's a circular argument perpetuated by developers who want to superimpose their cookie cutter template onto Duluth as they have done elsewhere. I don't buy it. If you wanna build cheap, flimsy houses and buildings then go somewhere else.

secretseasons

about 2 months ago

@Kodiak - do you always talk about yourself in the third person? It's getting ... weird

Dave Sorensen

about 2 months ago

What is "natural growth"? And what about the limits to growth, whether growth is an end in itself, or not? In the article the word "sustainable" is used once, to mention the possible study of sustainability. Capitalism, in denial about the limits to growth, has become a death cult.

The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality

Karl Schuettler

about 2 months ago

Good to see a punchy comment get a response! In response to a few of Kodiak's points:

This post got my hackles up because I work in economic development (though not for the city), so these debates are very familiar to me. Obviously the op-ed genre can be limiting. But when a person whose credentials seem to involve an undergraduate degree in the field from when he lived in the city 30 years ago (at least as presented in the article) appears to do a drive-by that doesn't seem to have much understanding of the situation on the ground or what has changed over the past 30 years (my entire lifetime), it'll get a reaction.

Take the "diversify the economy" claim. Duluth's politicians and economic developers have been trying very hard to do this for the past 40 years. That doesn't mean it's always been done well, or that anyone should rest on their laurels, but I wanted to acknowledge that there has, in fact, been a ton of progress, especially when you consider that the place Duluth started from looked a lot more like Youngstown than it did like Fargo. The thrust of my first few points was to acknowledge that there has been a lot of work here, and that it could've been a lot worse. That, along with the annoying pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps headline (which I realize the author may not have chosen) set me off.

It's pretty well-documented that the vast majority of tech growth is in a few major metros. This doesn't mean that there aren't some successes in places like Fargo or Boise, but what exactly does that mean for Duluth? Again, going back to the field of economic development: basically every city in America is now trying to create some sort of tech incubator or find these rare fortunate companies. (And Duluth has invested serious money here, going back to the launch the Tech Village 20 years ago.) Those very successful companies are rare, and it's hard to know what exactly a city can do to cultivate them (other than by building off of a research university, where we seem to be in agreement that there is potential, but also a lot of work to be done). I'm open to other original ways to grow them...but what are they?

I'm not following which part of point 6 you find circular. Are you claiming that demolition or rehab isn't more expensive than building on a greenfield site? That building on a slope isn't more expensive than on a flat field? That blasting through bedrock isn't expensive? I find the final line especially interesting, since a huge part of the growth of Fargo, Sioux Falls, etc. has been exactly through those cheaper cookie-cutter housing developments that you don't like. Maybe Duluth as a city doesn't want to develop much more new stuff, whether due to the environmental or aesthetic reasons others have cited here, but let's not pretend that such a mindset won't have certain consequences for the affordability of the desirable housing stock (absent other forces, such as a major government investment in housing) and the city's ability to add more people.

Kodiak

about 2 months ago

@Karl
That is a derisory way to make your point. The undergrad degree is in two fields: geography and urban & regional studies. Calling it a drive-by is demeaning. You can't assume who the writer knows, communicates with or consults. It sounds to me like this person has a depth of understanding, vision and imagination that is deficient in the chamber of commerce, city hall and the NGOs charged with econ dev. You can't assume that the writer hasn't lived in Duluth or visited since the 1980s to see the transformation. If anything, someone who had lived through the economic fallout and seen the city come through the other side will have a deeper appreciation than you realize. I believe you are missing the point of the OpEd. There is no room for complacency or backslapping when the city is sleepwalking into its own demise. If the productivity of econ dev in Duluth were measured, it would be a dismal failure. Why? Because the expertise to effect real change is not in the right places or taking the necessary supporters with it. I think it's sad that close-mindedness and bad attitudes persist among the people who are supposed to be leading Duluth into the future. At this rate, there will be no future. Duluth isn't even a city anymore. And that's regrettable.

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