Life in a Northern Town

When Duluth’s major industries collapsed, they did so with speedy brutality. The steel mill shut down and the Air Force picked up and left. The timber and fishing industries suffered, and manufacturing’s success was stunted by the excessive costs associated with shipping things to and from a place as remote as Duluth. Labor was more expensive, too, due to Duluth’s heavy unionization, and aging factories were losing their efficiency. Storefronts were boarded up, schools closed down. The bustling port became a bleak, post-industrial wasteland.

Duluth’s sleeves were still rolled up—but now it was for the long wait in unemployment lines, since up to 20 percent of Duluthians were jobless through the 80s. Population fell from 100,000 in 1960 to about 85,000 in 1984. The city needed a new strategy, and fast.

John Fedo, mayor at the time, was imploring city planners to regroup and consider options, including tourism, to diversify the economy—and it was tough going. After all, if a grimy, booming industrial port full of bustling factories is off-putting to tourists, a grimy, desolate, failing port full of boarded up factories is far less so.

Promotion of tourism had to go hand in hand with revitalization of the waterfront industry. “A working port is critical to the history and the future of the city of Duluth,” says Fedo. “For a number of years, Duluth’s city fathers simply didn’t understand how industry and tourism could work together as complementary components of a healthy economy.” But in Duluth, this juxtaposition of industry and natural beauty is exactly the unlikely recipe for attracting visitors. This understanding made the Canal Park waterfront absolutely central to the effort to reinvent Duluth for itself and the outside world.

My grandmother Adelle LaBrec lived in Duluth all her life. Her parents came from the small farming village of Lampton, near Quebec City. Nana was in her late 30s by the time she married Henry Ouellette, who, as Nana tells it, dropped dead of a heart attack when he was barely sixty.

Not terribly long after that, the city knocked on her door to say they were about to tear down her house on the hill to build a freeway. Nana never got over that blow. As a widow whose two children had both long since departed Duluth—as the vast majority of Duluth children do—Nana found her best option to be a 13th floor apartment in a downtown senior high-rise on Superior Street, overlooking Canal Park. She lived happily there for 20 years among the “old hens.”

It was in that apartment that I learned the importance of 7-Up as a medical treatment. After you have gorged yourself on baked chicken heavily seasoned with Lawry’s, chased by an enormous dish of soft vanilla ice cream with outlandishly delicious homemade hot fudge, and you are writhing with stomachache, you then force yourself to swallow a small glass of 7-Up to help it “settle.”

It was also in Nana’s apartment that I absorbed from her the mythic importance of the ships that passed through the port. Her living room and bedroom windows both looked straight out over the harbor, down on what is now Canal Park and what was then little more than a junkyard. If Nana could see what the city of Duluth has now done for her view, she would finally forgive them for tearing down her house on the hill.
Under Fedo’s leadership, an aggressive renovation blew in like a spring cleaning, beginning with the removal of many decades’ worth of industrial debris that had been dumped along the lakeshore. It also spelled demolition or renovation for scads of historic brick warehouses, factories, and breweries along the harbor front.

Developers built hotels and resorts, and a slew of new restaurants and shops sprang up along with tender saplings and replica streetlamps to line the district’s new brick streets. Up the hill in downtown, the city had the site of the old downtown Sears store designated as federal land so that the Fon-du-Luth casino could be opened in its place. And the freeway renovation made it all more accessible to passersby.

Now, more than 3.5 million visitors are attracted to Duluth each year. Tourism results in a $400 million total annual economic impact for the city, and in 2001 Duluth tourism achieved its 13th consecutive year of record growth. As the top destination for vacationing Minnesotans, Duluth is home to 8,000 tourism-related jobs with an average wage of $11.20 per hour. Duluth was host to 48 major conventions in 2001 with a total economic impact of $36 million. And in addition to providing amenities to the locals, the benefits of tourism save every Duluth homeowner an estimated $400 annually on property taxes.

“It’s been incredible,” says Patrick Cross from across the booth at Lake Avenue Cafe, one block from the Aerial Bridge in Canal Park. While Cross has seen countless restaurants come and go during his 13 years in Canal Park, his own business has seen 10-15 percent growth each year until 2002, a departure for which he credits 9/11 and its impact on travel and the national economy. “We were real spoiled for so long, it’s going to be a struggle for the next few months.”

Cross looks around and raises his palms at the surrounding shops, hotels, and restaurants, and says, “Our whole economy here is based on tourism. That’s always been one of the complaints of people trying to create jobs in this town. These chains come in and they create jobs, but they’re not paying living wages.”

“You have to have balance,” says Fedo, who points to major strides in economic development in the health care and education industries in Duluth, as well. He stresses diversification as the key. “Clearly the approach has to be exactly that. You can’t exist on industry alone, or tourism alone.”

Our biggest problem in Duluth for the past 40 years or so is that people between 20 and 30 all leave the area,” says Cross. “Every year a new crop of graduates flees the city. So there are definitely challenges.” Winter is one of them. “In this business, in order to survive winter, you have to get yourself established and develop a local following,” says Cross. “That’s what kills the chains—when they can’t handle the winters.”

Cross’ cafe is one of only two independently owned restaurants in Canal Park, and certainly the only one that makes hot fudge sauce that tastes identical to Nana’s. “It’s Granny Rouse’s recipe,” says Cross. “You can have it.” He disappears into the kitchen to fetch an overstuffed recipe binder. “It’s real simple: 4 ounces bittersweet Callebaut chocolate, 1 ounce baking chocolate, 3 ounces mini marshmallows, and a cup of half and half. Melt it down in a double boiler. We don’t have any secrets, there’s no need to be so snooty.”

Indeed. And that very attitude may lie at the core of Duluth’s unlikely renaissance. “It’s Lake Superior, stupid,” jokes Ken Bueheler of the Railroad Museum, offering another simple recipe: “You take this half slummy, half bowery of Canal Park and turn it into a new downtown. Lake Superior comes to an end there, the farthest western point of the lake. Link it all together with a lake walk, and take a new attitude that welcomes people to the city.”

Despite certain signs to the contrary, Fedo maintains that those efforts at welcoming improvements went beyond downtown and Canal Park, and in fact reached all the way to the dreary West End. “We spent a considerable amount of time, dollars, and energy improving Lincoln Park in the early 80s,” he reassures me. “There was crime, there was vandalism. People didn’t feel comfortable taking a walk. That’s changed for the better now.”

But what about that aquarium? “You have to wonder if the admission wasn’t a bit high,” muses Holden, who of course can’t help but point out that his museum, which is free, attracts 400,000 visitors a year—visitors who spend money at the surrounding restaurants and attractions. “That’s the goal,” says Fedo. “To take advantage of the vast number of folks that are heading by Duluth—and to say, how many can we get to stop?”

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