DULUTH - In a wide-ranging State of the City address that touched on several of Duluth's enduring problems, Mayor Emily Larson seemed to make her case for re-election Wednesday night, focusing heavily on work underway.
She spoke to a crowd at West Duluth's Art Deco-style West Theatre, a once grand building that fell into ruin, and was restored to operate again just as the pandemic hit. Owner Bob Boone's effort to keep the theater afloat the past three years is an example of how a long-term vision can be realized through persistence, Larson said.
"Big goals don't get met by tweeting them out or posting them on Facebook," she said. "Progress comes through a steady vision and the relentless pursuit of it."
Larson, running to capture her third term against Roger Reinert, a former state legislator, shared her administration's progress addressing the state of a post-pandemic downtown, lead remediation, city parks, streets, economic development, housing and child care.
Here are highlights of her speech:
A dedicated street improvement fund that plows through $10 million a year helped repair 17 miles of road in 2022, and will again this year. It's a huge leap from the two miles a year completed at the start of her first term, Larson said.
Then, the city was still rebounding from the loss of casino revenue it used to put toward streets, after the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa won the right to stop such payments to the city a decade ago.
"Anyone who rides or drives our roads, let's be honest, knows we're not there yet," she said. "But we're headed in the right direction, and we're going to accelerate."
Larson said nearly 1,300 new slots for child care are necessary in Duluth just to meet the city's current critical need.
"The pandemic made an already deep crisis more dire," she said.
To help solve it, she's set to convene her fourth mayoral task force to address the problem. The Northland Foundation's Tony Sertich and the Northspan Group's Elissa Hansen will lead the group, the same duo that led Larson's housing task force that resulted in the Duluth Housing Trust Fund.
Parks and recreation
Less than 10% of Duluth's 122 parks are in "good" condition, Larson said, and decades of little investment have racked up $155 million in deferred maintenance. Voters rejected a parks levy in November by a thin margin; money was intended to improve public athletic facilities across the city.
Now, city leaders are asking the State Legislature to extend Duluth's expiring half-percent restaurant, bar and lodging sales tax. it would pay for up to $36 million in park improvements over 30 years. In the past, the tax revenue has been used to support recreation facilities along the St. Louis River.
Larson cited the work done to revitalize the river corridor and the city's oldest park —Lincoln Park in its namesake neighborhood — as examples of what's possible.
The city has already acted on many of the recommendations a downtown task force made after studying public safety and economic problems that worsened during the pandemic, Larson said. Police have expanded its teams that deal with substance abuse and mental health crises, and a separate, city-funded crisis response team roams downtown's Skywalk and streets.
One idea Larson proposed last year will go into effect soon: a misdemeanor mental health court that will handle low-level crimes of high-risk people by connecting them to resources.
Assessing the Skywalk system is next, Larson said. Users have complained of drug use, violence and public urination inside the city's 3.5 miles of skyway.
A small pilot program was launched in 2022 in Central Hillside, aimed at replacing lead pipes for free. The city is asking the state for $10 million to replace pipes for hundreds of homes this year, at $16,000 each. About 6,300 Duluth homes need replacement.
None of these problems have quick fixes, Larson said.
"There is no room for distraction over a shiny new thing," she said. "We have deliberately chosen to take on issues that are generational in the making. ... We're making progress, despite how much more there is still to do."