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On May 28, 2015, Mayor Don Ness called a timeout on further planning for the Duluth Public Library, citing the need to engage the public more fully in the planning process. The issue, which had been rolling full steam ahead toward an advisory referendum, disappeared from public view; it was not included on the November ballot.
Up until that point, the administration had paid lip service to public involvement, holding a handful of public meetings and soliciting comment cards from the audience. In reality, however, as reported in The Reader on June 11, the mayor planned to tear down the existing library and build a new one downtown, on the site of the old Muffler Clinic. Planning for that option had been going on behind the scenes for months. It is likely that The Reader’s imminent exposure of the plan is what stopped it.
Internal city documents recently obtained by The Reader show just how far the planning had progressed. On April 29, 2015, the architectural consultants TKDA delivered a PowerPoint presentation to city staff focusing on two different locations for a new library: one on the Muffler Clinic site and one on the site of the existing library. No effort was made to determine if it would be cost-effective to save the existing library. The bias against the current library underpinned every decision the administration made.
On the Muffler Clinic site, three different configurations for a new library were presented. All three options called for acquiring and demolishing the building immediately to the west of the site, which houses the Chinese Dragon restaurant, the Bullseye Silkscreen shop, and Old Town Antiques. Two of the options called for demolishing additional buildings to the east.
Acquiring and demolishing large commercial buildings would have added significantly to the cost of a new library. In all of the public meetings held on the library, this cost was never mentioned. The price of a new library was said to be $35 million, a figure that was repeated over and over, as if it were set in stone. In reality, had the plan gone forward, the price tag would have been millions of dollars higher.
TKDA’s preliminary estimate for a 74,000-square-foot library on the Muffler Clinic site was $37.5 million—with land acquisition costs “to be determined.” And though the plans showed two levels of parking under the library, the preliminary estimate only budgeted for one.
In a second presentation, delivered on May 27, TKDA did not mention the present library site at all. Per the administration’s wishes, they focused exclusively on the Muffler Clinic site (Figure 1).
Now, all of that is moot. Despite the mayor’s call for more public involvement, no further meetings have been held on the subject, and not a word has emanated from City Hall, since May. But things are happening behind the scenes.
According to Jim Filby Williams, the city’s director of public administration, the city has quietly hired a consultant to “reexamine a mid-priced partial renovation option for the existing facility that would secure the asset by making sure that the building envelope is secure [and] that would renew basic building systems that are failing or beyond their expected life span.”
“We’re trying to arm the incoming administration with as full as possible an understanding of the basic options,” Filby Williams said. “This is the option that has not yet been sufficiently well explored…. Depending on how expensive those two, essentially obligatory, investments cost, [we will] seek to make some additional, lesser investments that directly go to improvements to library services.”
Currently, no money is being set aside for these renovations. “That’ll be work for the next administration to do, to select a preferred option and then to begin to look more closely at potential financing options,” said Filby Williams.
When Emily Larson takes over as mayor in January, she will have to make some decisions on the library rather quickly. It is unknown, at this point, what those decisions might be.
Spirit Mountain water savings
Ever since Spirit Mountain proposed the idea, many years ago, of drawing water from the St. Louis River for snowmaking, rather than using city water, estimates of how much money this would save the ski hill have varied wildly. At various meetings and in various news stories over the years, I encountered estimates ranging from $40,000 to $140,000 annually.
On November 2, 2015, at the official unveiling of the new water line, this number took a big leap upward. During a slide show presented by SEH, one of the contractors on the project, the voice-over narrator declared that Spirit Mountain had been spending $150,000 a year on city water before the new pipeline was built. Then, a few slides later, the narrator said, “The project is now complete. The results are terrific and include a projected $200,000 annual savings”—an increase of $50,000 in the space of a single minute.
It’s clear that people have always just conjured up numbers to make the project look better. That’s something that happens with most big projects. In the case of Spirit Mountain, though, a simple phone call to the city water department could have yielded the true number at any time.
On November 9, Jim Benning, the city’s director of public works, presented his department’s 2016 budget to the city council. When speaking of the water fund, he showed a drop in projected revenue of about $360,000. Part of that, he said, was “attributable to the Spirit Mountain water project….They’re not going to be making snow with our water anymore, so we lose about $80,000 a year.”
I wasn’t the only one who sat up a little straighter when he said that. Councilor Howie Hanson said, “Just to clarify, did you say that the annual billings for Spirit Mountain for water were $80,000 annually?”
“In that vicinity, $80,000, yes,” replied Mr. Benning.
“It’s a different number than has been reported for the cost savings,” Hanson said.
“ I think they may be including other costs associated with their pumping and the materials that they have to add and the repair and things, but just the sale of the water alone is $80,000,” repeated Benning.
So Benning earned some good-soldier points by backing up Spirit Mountain, but, of course, the new water line will have similar operational costs as the old one—costs for pumping and repairs and adding snow-making material to the water and so on. The cost of pumping and maintenance could even be higher with the new system, since it’s moving more water and there are more pipes. The only clear and indisputable savings that we can identify, at this point, are the savings that come from not having to buy the water—$80,000.
If Spirit Mountain operated under the rules of actual economics, the new $6 million water system would take 75 years to pay for itself.
Minnesota’s drunkest city
Back in June, a few billboards appeared around town proclaiming that St. Paul was the craft beer capital of Minnesota. Mayor Ness was not pleased, to say the least. Why? Because HE had already declared that DULUTH was the craft beer capital of Minnesota, and St. Paul was talking smack.
The mayor’s original proclamation appeared in a letter to The Growler magazine, a “craft beer lifestyle” publication, on February 8, 2013. “We all know that the craft beer ethic goes well beyond the beer itself,” the mayor wrote, “ – it’s about outdoor recreation, access to natural beauty, enjoying four full seasons, an authentic arts scene, and bluegrass music played as fast as humanly possible. It’s about impressive beards, wind-burned cheeks, and a Wellstone sticker on an old pickup truck.” All of these things, plus mountain bike trails, declared the mayor, gave Duluth an “authentic quality of being.”
Because he was the first mayor to proclaim his city Minnesota’s craft beer capital, Ness said, Duluth “had dibs” on the title. “Don’t get me wrong,” he told the Duluth News Tribune in June. “St. Paul has great craft beer, but being the craft beer capital of Minnesota is not just about beer production, it’s about craft ethic. That’s what sets Duluth apart.”
I’m inclined to agree with the mayor on this, because Duluth has recently collected another related title. As it turns out, the craft ethic is not just about beards and bicycles; it’s also about binge drinking and alcohol-related traffic fatalities. On November 11, the online publication 24/7 Wall Street published a list of the drunkest cities in each state. To arrive at their conclusions, they analyzed health statistics and other data collected by local agencies and foundations across the country. In Minnesota, Duluth won!
“Almost 21% of Duluth residents report an excessive drinking habit, slightly higher than Minnesota’s share of 19.3%, and well above the national proportion of 15.0%,” reported 24/7 Wall Street. On top of that, 42% of traffic deaths in Duluth are alcohol-related—11 percentage points higher than the national average!
As of press time, The Reader has been unable to confirm whether the mayor is now planning a billboard campaign in St. Paul.