In the latest attempt to shrug off its depressed Rust Belt image and cash in on its hilly topography, Duluth is pouring taxpayer money into what city boosters hope will make it a mountain biking mecca.
Once the soggy spring relents, ski lifts will begin hauling heavy mountain bikes up Spirit Mountain in the next few weeks so riders can pedal down two new so-called gravity runs this summer. Professional designers have been hired to begin crafting berms and rollers from Mission Creek to Lester Park, part of an ambitious long-range plan to expand 28 existing miles of trail into a 100-mile ribbon for bikers traversing the entire city.
They'll use a $250,000 grant from state Legacy coffers, $60,000 in city tourism tax money and various smaller grants from biking organizations in what's expected to grow into a $2 million investment in mountain biking by the decade's end.
"The boomer generation defined their Duluth experience by going down to the lake to passively watch the ships come in," Mayor Don Ness said. "The generation of folks just now deciding where to spend their family vacations is looking for a more active experience."
Ness, who at 39 is part of that next generation, is betting that mountain biking will woo tourists and young professionals to a city that's seen manufacturing and shipping steadily decline.
"Mountain biking enhances and showcases Duluth's greatest assets: our tremendous amount of green space and the spectacular views from the hillsides," Ness said.
The area's demographics also play into the mountain bike strategy, said St. Louis County Commissioner Frank Jewell, who helps negotiate deals to run trails through tax-forfeited, county-controlled land.
In the 2000 U.S. Census, Duluth's population was older than the rest of the state. But by 2010, it was skewing younger than the state average.
"It was notable, and you can feel that energy in certain parts of the city," Jewell said, pointing to the rash of new microbreweries in town.
Jewell owns a regular bike and a mountain bike. Like many riders, he grew accustomed to pedaling on old forest roads along the North Shore or the paved Munger Trail to Hinckley.
"In the past, you'd hop on a ski or snowmobile trail or old logging road, but we're really seeing an evolution with trails being built in the city that parallel high-end cross-country or alpine skiing," said Hansi Johnson, Midwest regional director for the International Mountain Bicycling Association.
For the front-end design work of the 100-mile, single-track trail dubbed the Duluth Traverse, the city brought in trail designers from Utah, Michigan and the Southeast. Contractors' bids on the latest trail projects are due this week.
"And we're actually hiring two people and purchasing our own mechanized equipment to build trails," said Dr. Adam Sundberg, a Duluth chiropractor and chairman of the city's 19-year-old cycling club known as COGGS. That's short for Cyclists of Gitchee Gumee Shores and the group has cobbled together nearly $20,000 in grants from foundations and bike manufacturers.
Sundberg said 9 miles of the Traverse will be constructed this summer along the Lester River and Amity Creek on the eastern edge and another 9 miles on the western front near Mission Creek.
"Most places have their mountain biking trails on the periphery of town, down in valleys or up on the foothills," Sundberg said. "We have this 700-foot-tall ridge and all this green space in the city limits, and the trail is going to go right across and up and down all that — it's something 99 percent of the other cities don't even have the option to pull off."
While bikers will have to wait years to traverse the 100-mile Traverse, they're only weeks away from flying down Spirit Mountain. A 1.5-mile Candyland trail for beginners and intermediate riders will open in June, along with a more advanced Smorgasbord run. Both were built last year and will be served by chairlifts from the ski side of the venue, run by an authority arm of the city.
Construction begins soon on two more trails, including an uphill path to get bikers up when the lifts aren't running. "It will still be a climb, but not a killer climb," said Spirit Mountain director Renee Mattson.
She said mountain biking is a snug fit for a city visited by more than 3 million tourists a year: "It makes sense to capitalize on those looking for outdoor recreation."
Mayor Ness won't be satisfied with becoming merely a Midwest mecca for mountain bikers. He insists that when the Traverse is finished, "it will be the premier urban mountain biking system in the world."
Hyperbole? Sure, but Duluth is starting to get noticed by the larger mountain biking crowd.
Outside magazine ranked Duluth the world's No. 2 adventure travel spot in its April edition, behind Kununurra, Australia. And from his perch in Portland, Ore., Chris Bernhardt has watched two years of planning in Duluth turn into actual trail-building in 2013. He rode in Hansi Johnson's car a few years ago from a mountain biking conference in Copper Harbor, Mich., where much of this dreaming began.
Bernhardt, a director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association, compares Duluth to mountain biking towns in places such as Aspen, Colo., Sun Valley, Idaho or Park City, Utah.
"Those are hard places for real people to live," he said. "Duluth is a real town with all those other things like shipping and factories — and soon it will have mountain biking."