Even in the most touristy part of Duluth, the city’s popular Lakewalk trail is focused mostly on nature and the city’s industrial history: Skipping rocks on the world’s largest freshwater lake, hunting for agates on its rocky shore, watching big ships roll out to the horizon.
Now city leaders want to know: Would more refreshment carts, sports rental stands and musicians along the path enhance the experience, or ruin it?
City officials are asking residents, visitors and businesses to fill out an online survey aimed at gauging interest for commercial activity along the Lakewalk from Bayfront Festival Park, up the shore to the Rose Garden.
Planners realized they didn’t have a clear set of procedures to evaluate and permit such small-scale businesses there, said Pakou Ly, Duluth’s public information coordinator.
“We do get a lot of interested entrepreneurs who say, ‘Hey, I’d like to do this,’ ” Ly said. “We realize that we’re not fully set up with the right procedures and processes to evaluate what should happen as far as commercial activity along the Lakewalk.”
Reaction to the idea of more commercial activity in the area is mixed.
Rod Raymond, who owns Endion Station restaurant near the Lakewalk in Canal Park and Fitger’s Brewhouse and Tycoon’s Alehouse near the Lakewalk downtown, said he welcomes more activity.
“Anything we can do to generate traffic downtown, traffic on the Lakewalk [that is] festive and fun … is a victory for my restaurants,” Raymond said. “I think we can all grow.”
A few small-footprint, seasonal businesses already exist along the path, including bicycle rentals, and a snack stand.
Steve Smith owns Crabby Ol’ Bills, which sells mini-doughnuts, cheese curds and other hand-held foods from a beached boat near the Lakewalk by the lighthouse and lift bridge. The business is dependent on the weather, he said.
“It obviously would increase competition. I also think it would detour people from walking on the lake as much,” he said. “If you want to walk and shop, we have plenty of streets for that both in downtown and in Canal Park. … I think most of the people that want to walk the Lakewalk want to get away from that. … They want to just walk along the lake and enjoy the lake and enjoy nature and that’s it.”
Brian Daugherty, president of Grandma’s Restaurant Co. and past president of the Canal Park Business Association, said it’s a balancing act.
While business owners always welcome more vibrancy on the streets around them, “pop-up” businesses can hurt those that are established, he pointed out.
Surveys might indicate that users want more snacks, for instance, he said. But that could cut into established tax-paying businesses that are a short jaunt from the Lakewalk.
“Everybody would love to have more ice cream in the summertime on the Lakewalk, but is that fair?” he asked. Long-established ice cream businesses not far from the path both in Canal Park and downtown would likely say: “Don’t give them an uncompetitive advantage over us who are here … year-round,” Daugherty said.
Susan Isernhagen, president of nonprofit group Friends of the Lakewalk, said she is glad the city is conducting the survey and her group will be interested in the results, including on questions about safety and restrooms. Though group members haven’t discussed more commercial activity in that tourist-heavy section of the 7.3-mile trail, she said she personally thinks there might be room for more if it’s done right.
The question, she and others described, is how it would affect the overall vibe.
Christine Strom walks or bikes the path three to four times a week in the summer, she said, and wouldn’t object to vendors as long as people continue to keep it clean. “I surely would be very unhappy if it were becoming a place where people don’t care with garbage,” she said. “It’s really pristine for being in a city.”
City planning director Keith Hamre said whatever happens, leaders want to make sure it is done tastefully.
“We don’t want to create a bottleneck situation where people would not enjoy their experience,” Hamre said. “It’s a hallmark of the city of Duluth and it represents our community.”