Minnesotans love Duluth.
They love the industrial port, the natural beauty, the world-class parks and trails, and, of course, The Lake.
But there was always a sense that Duluth was not fulfilling it's full potential, that the problems facing the city were just too much to overcome. For many Minnesotans, their impression of Duluth was of an industrial city dying under the weight of it's legacy issues.
Today, Duluth is experiencing a renaissance based upon a new generation of business and civic leaders, an aggressive investment in the city's built infrastructure, solving legacy issues, and an economy that has out-performed the rest of the state through this recession.
Duluth Mayor Don Ness (right) has played an important role in this success. Here's a sampling of issues the Ness administration has addressed:
. When Ness took office in 2008, he inherited a $81 million general fund budget. In 2010 the actual expenditures of the city was $71.2 million, a 12% decline in three years. During that same time the city's reserve went from a negative $1.8 million to a $5.3 million reserve today.
. The city of Duluth became one of the first units of government in the nation to comprehensively address the growing problem of retiree health-care. Because of the reforms implemented, the city's unfunded liability was reduced from $351 million to $208 million -- a 40% reduction in the liability which had threatened to bankrupt the city. There is currently a case before the Minnesota Supreme Court on this matter, and Duluth's future hangs in the balance.
. After averaging just three miles of road improvement a year for many years, Ness implemented a new street program which is ahead of schedule to improve 100 miles of city streets in just five years. In addition, the city is ahead of schedule and under budget on a plan to eliminate sanitary sewer overflows into Lake Superior. Sewer overflows was a $100 million problem that had threatened to shut down all new development in Duluth.
Despite making a number of difficult and controversial decisions, residents of Duluth are supporting Ness. According to a 2010 National Citizen Survey, 81% of Duluthians support the mayor.
Everywhere you look in Duluth, you see progress and signs of a revitalized community:
. The new Amsoil Arena has already brought a national championship to the Bulldogs men's hockey team
. UMD has grown from 7,500 to over 11,000 students in the past decade, bringing new investment
. A new airport is being built to accommodate record and near-record travel
. A $290 million-plus Duluth Public Schools long-range facilities project is nearly complete
. The four-year, $80 million renovations to I-35 in Duluth will be nearly complete this fall
. Private investors have been aggressively redeveloping in Downtown Duluth's arts and culture district
Deservedly, community leaders are showering Ness with praise.
"Mayor Don Ness has done an exceptional job making tough decisions that have been neglected for far too long," said Minnesota Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon of Duluth. "The city is on better financial footing than it has been for a number of years, in spite of the challenges of the current economy and LGA cuts by the state. He has cultivated positive relationships with young adults assuring acceptance and respect for their involvement in the community and providing opportunities for mentoring them to become our future leaders.
"The city is clean, there is lots of activity, night life and evidence of economic growth. The mayor has high visibility in the community. He is steady, focused and conducts himself with the highest standards and personal values. I give him an A+ rating in his first term."
Ness is tackling problems that have been kicked down the road -- too often pothole-filled roads -- for too long, said retired judge Carol Person.
"The mayor is full of energy and initiative -- and that energy is being felt all around town," said Person. "It's infectious, and we're seeing a new generation of leaders/entrepreneurs/artists/musicians emerging. Duluth is a happening place!"
Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL Duluth, said Ness is the most visible face of a wave of young leadership in Duluth.
"In less than five years, we've gone from primarily Greatest Generation and Boomers to Gen X and Gen Y -- the mayor, our police chief, city attorney, four of nine city councilors and myself," said Reinert. "And with that change has come a new style of leadership that the mayor exemplifies -- one of confronting hard problems, being honest and implementing solutions, even when they're politically unpopular."
Pam Kramer, CEO/president of Duluth LISC, a national community development organization making a positive difference in Duluth, said Ness began his first mayoral term in 2008 facing an extremely difficult budget situation -- "and has tackled tough long-term issues, made difficult decisions and found creative solutions that have helped to turn the city around."
"Don understands that government can't do it alone, but it does play a critical role in bringing the community together to work toward a shared vision," said Kramer. "He has set the stage for this by encouraging us to build on Duluth's assets, helping to provide tools that support planned growth, encouraging innovation, and calling for us to work together toward a more prosperous community for all.
"We certainly face challenges in Duluth and will, no doubt, face more in the future, but I think the mayor and his ability to communicate well, listen and build strong teams is helping to move Duluth forward."
Terry Mattson, president/CEO of Visit Duluth, Duluth's official tourism organization, applauds Ness for tackling the city's challenges directly.
"He's providing leadership to overcome what's plagued the past and made changes for a brighter future," Mattson said of Ness. "These are complex tasks. In addition to everything on his plate, Don's a tremendous tourism supporter and values how vitally important it is. He's making Duluth a better place."
Tony Bronson, regional manager at Grandma's Restaurant Company, credits Ness as the positive energy behind a lot of the improvements seen throughout Duluth.
"Don has certainly been a great friend of the hospitality industry," Bronson said. "His open and honest leadership style has made him an approachable partner for businesses and citizens alike. I am definitely a fan."
Ken Buehler, executive director of the St. Louis County Heritage & Arts Center, Lake Superior Railroad Museum and North Shore Scenic Railroad, said, "Mayor Ness has brought a lot of energy to the office and has solved some major issues that were facing the city when he was elected. He has been a friend to arts, culture and history in our community, and has been a strong supporter of the Depot and of our effort to reestablish rail passenger service between Duluth and Minneapolis. My only complaint with his performance as mayor is that he seems to be a bit too tall."
Duluth is moving forward -- and quietly finding its way.