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Money, money, money!

I’m feeling green as a dollar bill, what with this plethora of money talk. And we’re thick in it yet again as the Council debates the $300,000 budgeted in 2012 for the Great Lakes Aquarium (GLA). 

“The Aquarium brings in more than 100,000 people a year,” Dennis Lamkin of the GLA board tells the Council. “People who go to it stay at hotels. They go to restaurants. The GLA is responsible for generating that revenue.”

Speakers point out as well the Aquarium has returned to its original educational mission, after its unfortunate meander some years ago into that tacky territory as a Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not attraction. 

“Last year 10,000 students went through the Aquarium,” GLA Executive Director Jack LaVoy explains. And of the $1.5 million the GLA leverages in earnings from the city’s $300,000, LaVoy remarks, “That’s a 5-to-1 return on investment.”

“Today, for the many local students who go to the GLA, the single most important factor is Lake Superior,” Councilor Patrick Boyle remarks. “I don’t think we can overstate the importance of the students’ role as the next gatekeepers of that economic jewel.”

“I was one of the naysayers,” Councilor Jay Fosle concurs. “And now they’ve turned it around to be an educational experience.” 

By a margin of 8 to 1, Councilors okay the GLA’s $300,000, to be paid from the city’s tourism tax fund (Krause voting No). 

Councilors also vote in favor of paying the Great Lakes Aquarium’s $129,000 in overdue water, natural gas, and steam utility bills, left dangling back in 2008 by good ol’ Ripley’s. With that debt still sitting on the GLA’s books, it’s been nigh onto impossible to acquire grants and other outside funding for the GLA’s ambitious projects.

“I do know grant-writing,” new Councilor Emily Larson says. “The liability of that debt is significant.”

And as new Councilor Jennifer Julsrud steps in to remind us, “We are paying ourselves with the money,” since the funds will be paid to Duluth’s Comfort Systems and the Duluth Steam Cooperative.

By a vote of 8 to 1, the Council approves the expenditure (Krause, No).

The dollar-sign theme continues as the Council unanimously approves $30,000 out of tourism tax dollars, for the Duluth Public Arts Fund. “Public art is something we can all share and reflects the values of our community,” Councilor Sharla Gardner says.

Then it’s on to handing over $30,000 from the tourism tax fund to pay for Duluth’s seat at the table of the Minneapolis-Duluth/Superior Passenger Rail Alliance, which is working to bring Amtrak train service to the Twin Ports. 

“Ninety percent of all new jobs in the state are in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area,” alliance member Ken Buehler tells the Councilors, with the remaining ten percent shared by everyone else. “We must link Duluth to that strong economic engine.”

“The Alliance has produced nothing,” Councilor Jay Fosle grumbles, saying the money would be better spent elsewhere.

“It’s good public transportation,” Councilor Linda Krug counters. “And sometimes we have to wait a little bit of time before we see things come to fruition.”

“America is convenience-driven,” Councilor Garry Krause argues, saying the 2-hour-and-40-minute trip won’t be fast enough to satisfy a car-happy society.

“I’ll go to St. Paul more often if I don’t have to drive,” Councilor Sharla Gardner shoots back, “and I’ll be able to work while traveling… We need to be less dependent on oil and fossil fuels and more green, and the train is a really positive part of that.”

“Rochester is pushing very hard to get rail… and St. Cloud almost has a line to them,” Council President Dan Hartman says as a vote nears. “If we don’t support this, we’ll be the city left out of the grid.”

By a narrow margin of 5 to 4, the Council okays handing Duluth’s $30,000 over to the alliance. (Yes: Boyle, Gardner, Hartman, Krug, and Larson. No: Fosle, Julsrud, Krause, and Stauber.)

As I run out of space and the Council runs out of time, I’ll squeeze in a mention of the $45,000 Councilors approve to pay for an outside law firm to help the city negotiate union contracts. 

“For Councilors to hire outside legal help is a very new thing,” Councilor Jim Stauber says, taking issue as well with hiring a Twin Cities law firm rather than a local firm.

By a vote of 7 to 2, however, the Council approves the contract (Gardner and Stauber, No). 

The Council also gives Spirit Mountain the go-ahead to build a new chalet at the bottom of the mountain and replace its largest lift. To do so, the Council unanimously approves nearly $7 million in bonds, to be paid back out of tourism tax funds and the mountain’s operating revenue.

And with 2012 marching onward, Councilors call it a night.