Duluth's youthful chief executive is bringing fresh energy and, yes, a sense of hipness to the port city.
In a recent picture posted to his 4,900 Facebook friends, Duluth Mayor Don Ness called attention to his "goofy perma-grin."
The gangly, shy politician -- think Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" -- wore that toothy expression a lot in early May during his favorite event: the Homegrown Music Festival, which organizers bill as "Duluth's annual showcase of rawk and/or roll devil music."
But the festival, which Ness ran before finding his calling running his hometown, is more than a political victory lap for the 38-year-old mayor. It represents the younger, hipper character he envisions for the aging industrial Lake Superior port he's steering into the future.
Six months after voters ushered him unopposed into his second four-year term as mayor of Minnesota's city by the inland sea, Ness has plenty to grin about.
Old Downtown is blooming into new life as an arts haven. It's there that developer George Sherman of Uptown Minneapolis fame plans to spend $19 million to restore the historic art deco NorShor Theatre. Enbridge Energy plans to expand there, adding about 100 jobs for engineers and other professionals.
Federal and state grants were just finalized to build a $27.5 million transit center downtown, with spacious skyway connections to Superior Street and the city's arena and convention center.
And Cirrus Aircraft, which went into a tuck during the recession, is hiring again, with its new Chinese owners putting up nearly $100 million so that the personal-airplane maker can finish developing its first jet.
"Yet another reason to be excited about Duluth's future!" Ness gushed recently in another Facebook post, which he wields often for mayoral news. His transit center post got 329 "likes" and dozens of comments, including this from constituent Jerry Fredrickson: "You'll be mayor for life if you're not careful."
Whether Ness deserves that much credit is debatable, but good jobs and cultural amenities are keys to his goal to attract young professionals to the city, which has mostly shrunk for half a century even as the state population boomed.
Ness said it's an easier sell than ever, given the growing music scene, more locally crafted beers and offbeat events such as Nerd Night, with presentations on such topics as competitive jigsaw puzzling. Ness recently lectured on "The Walking Subcaucus," a method of choosing political delegates.
Ness, who says he's always been a little awkward and "too boring" for higher office, jokes that "I have the nerd vote locked down."
On a roll
And other votes. An annual survey of Duluth residents last July put Ness' approval rating at 86 percent. No one can recall a Duluth mayor ever running unopposed.
"Anyone who ran against him would have been a human sacrifice," Chamber of Commerce President David Ross said. The chamber is an "uncharacteristically strong" advocate for Ness, Ross added, despite his relative lack of business experience and DFL roots.
"He's tackled some of the community's most vexing issues," Ross said, "and he moves well within the various sectors of the community, including business and labor."
In Ness' first term, the city cut by more than one-third a projected $350 million retiree health care liability that threatened to bankrupt the city. His administration followed a citizen task force's recommendation to move employees and retirees from 129 different health plans to a single plan with higher co-pays and deductibles. That meant going against unions and a group of retirees who fought all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which last fall ruled in favor of the administration.
Also in his first term, the city installed six giant basins to finally stop its old, leaky sanitary sewer system from overflowing during heavy rains.
"Protecting Lake Superior is our city's most sacred responsibility," said Ness, who persuaded citizens to accept a $10 monthly charge to help cover costs.
Ness announced in April that a year of courting airplane maintenance companies had paid off with Illinois-based AAR Corp.'s plans to take over most of the vacant former Northwest Airlines maintenance base and bring back up to 225 of the jobs lost when it closed.
"If that comes through, it's going to make him look very good," said Brad Bennett, the right-of-center host of "Sound Off," a radio call-in show.
Ness, the eldest of four sons, raised in Duluth by an evangelical pastor father and a social worker mother, thought he'd become a businessman, but politics lured him. He was elected Student Senate president at the University of Minnesota Duluth and became active in the DFL.
He caught the eye of former U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, who hired Ness to manage his re-election campaign, a job he did for 10 years. Meanwhile, Ness worked as director of policy for the Zeppa Foundation and, at age 25, became the second-youngest person ever elected to the Duluth City Council.
"I dislike the politics of personality and the unnecessary conflict and spin that you encounter," Ness said. "But I found I really like crafting policy -- finding solutions to problems."
Craig Grau, a UMD professor emeritus in political science, said he watched Ness' council experience toughen him. "He learned that you can't please everybody," Grau said.
Tortoises and the mayor
While attracting the young is far from a done deal, there's evidence of progress; U.S. census figures show the median age of Duluth's residents fell from 35.4 to 33.6 between 2000 and 2010. It marks the first time in decades that Duluth got younger.
"I'm seeing more and more of my graduates able to stay in Duluth and make enough money to live," said Tony Barrett, an economics professor at the College of St. Scholastica. "Ten or 15 years ago, we'd lose them to the Twin Cities."
Ness could be the poster boy for the youth movement he says is transforming Duluth from an aging Rust Belt city to a diversified up and comer.
Before first running for mayor, Ness, who for years had to contend with his boyish looks, went from Donny to Don. Even now, though graying around the temples, he still strikes many as wet behind the years.
Ness was especially amped last month that the Homegrown Festival's 170 bands, all connected to Duluth, included Trampled by Turtles, a bluegrass-folk quintet that five years ago promoted their buddy's first mayoral campaign and last month played "The Late Show With David Letterman."
At First Avenue in Minneapolis, Ness celebrated the band's new album by stage-diving, joined by his friend, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.
"For a long time, when I was growing up, if someone was talented they would feel a need to distance themselves from [Duluth]," Ness said without mentioning Exhibit A: Bob Dylan. The iconic troubadour was born on the city's steep hillside just a few blocks from where Ness grew up a generation later, but Dylan only recently admitted it.
"I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but at a certain point it became a point of real pride to say, 'We're from Duluth,'" Ness said. "That's the most important change of the past decade for our city: People are proud of where they're from and the cool things happening up here."
Larry Oakes • 612-269-0504