City officials want to broaden visitors’ horizons.
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.”