Canal Park success could be beacon of hope for West Duluth economy

By Gram Krause-Lyons

Duluth, although technically one city, is divided it into two distinct parts: East and West Duluth. The two parts of the city have always been different in many ways. The businesses located there represent this – West Duluth is considered largely industrial compared to East Duluth. Many perceive a deferring economic status of their respective residents, along with other factors. In recent years, West Duluth has begun to decline economically. Grand Avenue, one of the area’s biggest business districts, is lined with going-out-of-business signs.

The growing separation has led many to perceive a divide between the two parts of the city. Sam Dull, an employee at Beaner’s Central, a West Duluth coffee shop, has lived all over the city.

“It’s like a high school rivalry,” he said of the divide.

The clientele at Beaner’s Central is varied. Many students come to the coffee shop from the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), and they also get customers from other places in East Duluth, but this isn’t the case for other businesses, said Dull.

John Anderson, a manager at O’Reilly Auto Parts in West Duluth, said that his customers are mostly from the area.  He did clarify that this could be because there are other auto parts stores in East Duluth, including another O’Reilly Auto Parts.

“People go to different areas of the city for different things,” he said.

One business in West Duluth that does pull people from all over Duluth and the surrounding area is Duluth Lawn and Sport. Jim Olson has worked at this business for five years and says that their customer base is varied, with customers even coming from the Iron Range to make their purchases. Olson also said that many similar stores in the area have closed recently.

“[Duluth Lawn and Sport] is kind of all that’s left,” he said.

Even though Duluth Lawn and Sport, according to Olson, may be thriving, this is not the case for some other West Duluth businesses. The area has always been more blue collar and industrial than the rest of Duluth, but recently there is a decline in the industrial businesses that call West Duluth home.

Adam Pine, a UMD assistant professor of geography, said that this has happened before, and he said there are solutions.

Pine said the seeming divide between the two areas exist in the residents’ minds.

“We tend not to go places; we make our beats, and don’t stray off them. Everything else we know about other places is based off stereotypes,” Pine said.

So perhaps resident’s perceptions of the West Duluth area have led to an apparent divide, but what about the economic woes of West Duluth?

“West Duluth isn’t dying; cities don’t die,” Pine said.

According to Pine, the problem in West Duluth is de-industrialization. This problem has been faced by many cities and they all handle it differently.

One excellent example of a city revitalizing a part itself is right here in Duluth. According to Pine, Canal Park used to be entirely industrial, but due to a tremendous effort, warehouses became dance clubs and hotels. Today, Canal Park is an integral part of Duluth’s thriving tourism industry.

One solution for West Duluth is to try to find a way to link to this tourism industry and to other successful businesses in the area, according to Pine.

“Look at the top employers in Duluth, the city, the university and the hospitals, all in East Duluth and all not industrial,” he said.

One way to help West Duluth would be to get some of these businesses to move some of their operation to the west side. This, according to Pine, would draw in more people and help greatly to revitalize the economy of the area.

One organization is trying to put these ideas to work in West Duluth right now. The Local Initiatives Support Corporation has been in Duluth since 1997 and has plans to help West Duluth, including reusing previously developed land and supporting emerging economic growth sectors. The organization has invested millions in the area, creating affordable housing and expanding commercial/industrial space, according to the organizations’ website.

Even with these efforts already underway, it will take some time to awaken the West Duluth area, but as Duluth has already shown with Canal Park, the effort will be put forth to save a part of the city.

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