DULUTH – Descending the hills into town on Interstate 35, tourists are greeted with a beckoning view: the lift bridge, the downtown skyline, the world's largest freshwater lake glimmering in the distance.
Most never look over their right shoulder. There, somewhat hidden from view, sits an outdoors playground: miles of hiking and biking trails, a zoo, a ski hill, a campground and several places to launch canoes and kayaks on the wide and scenic St. Louis River.
Duluth leaders want to make it the city's second tourist destination, aiming to attract young vacationers more interested in activity over attractions, movement over museums.
"We have the largest freshwater estuary in the world in the St. Louis River," Mayor Don Ness said. "You have all of these amazing natural amenities and outdoor recreation experiences in a fairly small concentrated area."
The plan comes as hundreds of millions have been spent — with a similar sum still to come — to clean up the St. Louis River, saddled for decades with old industrial pollution. It is in concert with efforts to revitalize the long-neglected working-class part of town, where factory hands raised families in tight-knit communities near their jobs.
But some residents are balking at the possibility of reviving a sales tax to pay for the vision and skeptical that it will work.
The plan will be the focal point of Ness' State of the City speech Monday. The idea is similar to how the city embarked in the 1980s to transform the industrial Canal Park into a tourism destination — which now attracts most of the city's 3.5 million annual visitors.
'It really is a beautiful area'
Ness navigated his dusty 1992 Ford pickup truck over bumps and potholes on Grand Avenue one recent morning, seeing possibility where others might see deterioration. The thoroughfare — lined with a mixture of houses, industry, small businesses and worn parks covered in snow — was only mildly busy.
"It's tough to envision things this time of year, but it really is a beautiful area," Ness said.
As he drove, he pointed out a string of small, distinct neighborhoods by the river — some built nearly a century ago as company towns for workers at steel mills, ship building companies and other industries.
Many of the homes are owned by people in their 70s and 80s who grew up there, and city leaders worry about what will happen when they leave.
They want to lure young families with outdoor amenities and affordable mortgages.
"We know that these neighborhoods are going to turn over in the next decade," Ness said. "We need to be deliberate about creating a product that the next generation of home buyers are going to be interested in."
The tourism hub would focus on a triangle formed by the three attractions that already exist: the Spirit Mountain ski hill, the Lake Superior Zoo and the Indian Point Campground.
Will Munger, who owns a family motel within that triangle, welcomes more lodging and restaurants. He's long known what a gem the area is, he said. Between renovating and renting out rooms at the Willard Munger Inn, which is named after his politician father, Munger, 75, spends time hiking and cross-country skiing on the miles of wooded hills and trails there.
"We're kind of like Duluth's second city," he said. "The lake is the primary focus but people don't realize we have this vast estuary."
Leaders are outlining a carefully planned series of improvements, some of which have already been made:
The river has been undergoing cleanup over the last few decades. Plans are in place for another $300 million to $400 million in federal, state and private money to restore it and, by 2025, get it removed from a list of the most polluted areas around the Great Lakes.
The state has scheduled an $11.4 million project to redo Grand Avenue, also known as Hwy. 23, including adding more sidewalks and bike lanes and connecting the road to nearby bike trails.
Plans are in the works to complete the Duluth Traverse, a 100-mile single-track mountain biking trail, to connect the paved Willard Munger State Trail with the Duluth Lakewalk trail, and to extend the Western Waterfront Trail, a walking trail that meanders near the river.
On a smaller scale, a new city-subsidized chalet and entrance to Spirit Mountain were completed last year, connecting it to Grand Avenue.
Other plans include sprucing up river access points for canoers and kayakers.
Northeast Minneapolis resident Deb Ellis vacations in Duluth at least once a year, she said, but outside of going to Spirit Mountain as a kid, she has never gone to that area. Typically she stays in Canal Park, drives down Skyline Parkway and goes to local restaurants.
"It would be fun if there was more to do," she said. "I would do some of that."
Some private investors are poised to build inside the corridor, Ness said, and he's hoping public investment would push them.
Paying for improvements
To pay for the improvements, Ness will propose re-establishing a recently expired half-percent sales tax on food, lodging and beverages that was used to improve Canal Park. The tax would generate about $1.25 million a year, but would require permission from the Legislature and a vote from the City Council.
Council Member Jay Fosle, who represents the western part of the city and calls himself the council's only conservative, said he's not in favor of reviving the tax. While he welcomes improvements, he said, he'd rather lure business there first to increase the tax base.
Others agreed that the revitalization plan sounds great, but said they've heard similar plans before.
"They don't really seem to listen to the poorer people of Duluth very well," said Dwight Morrison, a retired teacher who lives in nearby Hermantown and volunteers with the nonprofit Wheels On Trails. "I'm a little cynical."
Some residents in the neighborhoods worry about drawing too much activity.
"I can understand why they want to do it, but for me that's why I live out here is to get away from all that stuff," said Rick Hinnenkamp, who has hiked trails there his whole life.
Carole Newkumet, a Riverside neighborhood resident who is chair of the Riverfront Communities Group, said she thinks most homeowners will warm up to the changes as long as they are consulted.
"The fact of the matter is that in order to lift that area of town … these things have to happen," Newkumet said.
"Better we should get on board and help direct that change than just to try to stop it."