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At the Duluth Parks Commission meeting of January 10, 2018, City Project Coordinator Lisa Luokkala presented commissioners with a proposed site plan for a new paddle center that the city wanted to build on the shore of the St. Louis River, opposite Tallas Island. Luokkala noted that, for a city located on a major regional river, Duluth has surprisingly few places that people can access the river—and there are no access points at all specifically designed for canoes and kayaks. The new paddle center would address this gap by providing purpose-built non-motorized boat access.
Tallas Island is a long, narrow, low-lying island that is separated from the mainland by a narrow channel of water. Prior to 2010, the channel had been silting in and filling with marshy growth for decades, to the point that Tallas Island was becoming a part of the mainland itself. In 2010, the Department of Natural Resources and other agencies conducted a major dredging operation to restore the channel and open it up to navigation by small boats. Today, the water between Tallas Island and the mainland is about 5 feet deep. A small cove facing the island, known as Kayak Bay, provides a pleasant resting spot for canoeists, kayakers and people walking by on the Western Waterfront Trail. This is where the city wants to build the paddle center.
In addition to a new road providing access to the site from Grand Avenue, the city’s plan calls for a ten-car parking lot, a second parking lot for trailers, an open staging area where groups of schoolchildren or paddlers can organize themselves, nature paths, portable toilets, a changing area, and a small beach. The developed park is envisioned to be about 10 acres in size, and the city plans to acquire another 32 acres of swampy land to the west of the site for preservation.
The paddle center is one element of a larger overall vision involving Spirit Mountain, the city and a private developer. The city has long been working toward establishing Spirit Mountain as a destination recreational hub. Meanwhile, the Spirit Valley Land Company (SVLC) has been buying up property around Spirit Mountain for more than a decade, combining individual lots into parcels large enough to accommodate large commercial or residential development. The SVLC and its president, Brad Johnson, have worked cooperatively with the city on a number of projects over the years. For example, when the city wanted to build new Nordic ski trails at Spirit Mountain, the SVLC granted the city several necessary easements over its property at no cost.
The proposed paddle center is located directly below Spirit Mountain on the other side of Grand Avenue, but it is separated from the ski hill by a large parcel of SVLC property. Plans for the property have been in the works for a long time, and have accelerated in the last year or so. The road envisioned for the paddle center would first pass through the SVLC property, paving the way (so to speak) for further SVLC development (according to Luokkala, the SVLC’s current plans call for 150 units of housing on the site, but Brad Johnson would neither confirm nor deny this when I spoke with him, saying only that the project was “in process”). The price tag for the road is about $3.1 million, which will be shared by the city, St. Louis County, and the state. The SVLC will pay for utilities. The SVLC very much supports the paddle center, believing it will add value to their project.
The SVLC’s property ends at the Burlington Northern railroad tracks, about 200 feet from the river’s edge. The question facing engineers now is whether they are going to end the new road with a turnaround at the tracks, or cross the tracks and provide access to a new paddle center. The uncertainty about where the road will end is part of what is driving the city to get the paddle center approved now. Luokkala told parks commissioners that the city hoped they would be ready to vote on a final plan at their February meeting.
The public comments
Following Luokkala’s presentation, members of public were given an opportunity to comment. The first speaker, Richard Heaney, expressed some doubt about the plan. He observed that the area around Tallas Island was “one of the quietest areas in the estuary,” and wondered whether the city might not be able to accomplish similar goals, with less disruption to the environment, by building a paddle center in a location that already had existing parking and infrastructure. (The nearest water access site for motorized craft is at Munger Landing, about a mile west.)
Mike Casey, chair of the Friends of West Duluth Parks and Trails, told the commission that his group flatly opposed “any future development below the tracks.” He also objected to the fact that no parking study had been done at Munger Landing to determine the suitability of putting in a paddle access center there.
Scott Neustel, owner of two Ski Hut shops in town, spoke in favor of the paddle center. As a board member of the Northland Paddlers Alliance, he said that his group supported keeping motorized and non-motorized users of the river separate. “There have been studies done that show that boaters and paddlers are not compatible.” Neustel also noted that, without the new paddle center, the distance between water access points on the river would be over two miles, which was “too much distance between launches.” Neustel didn’t mention it, but it’s no secret that he is also an investor with the SVLC. On many occasions, he has hinted that the SVLC’s projects might include a new Ski Hut store near Spirit Mountain.
Alison Clarke echoed Mike Casey’s comments in opposing new development below the tracks. “Isn’t it okay just being natural?” she asked.
Will Munger, owner of the Munger Inn, said that he was a member of many environmental organizations, including the Isaak Walton League, the Save Lake Superior Association, and the St. Louis River Alliance. “Virtually all those organizations, I think I can stand here tonight and tell you they oppose any kind of further development of riverfront areas that border right on the river. They want to keep them natural … I’ve paddled up in there, and it is really beautiful. It’s a neat place to go. But the one thing that makes it neat is the fact that it is wild and there’s no parking lots …. Do we really need to have another parking lot right on the river?”
Bill and Denette Lynch wondered why the city was building a new park when it couldn’t even maintain the parks it had. Bill pointed out that Grassy Point Park, two miles to the east, had been closed due to disrepair for years, and asked why the city couldn’t build a paddle access point there.
Charlie Studahar, owner of the nearby Spirit Lake Marina, wondered how the new paddle center would affect his business. As someone who rented out kayaks, canoes and pontoon boats, he thought the paddle center might bring in competitors. (This was a reasonable concern, as I have heard the leadership at Spirit Mountain discuss the possibility of offering kayak rentals in conjunction with a new paddle center.)
So, final score: Seven people skeptical of or opposed to the new paddle center, and one person in support.
Though I had known that the city was planning a paddle center for years, this was the first meeting I had attended where members of the public were given an opportunity to comment on it in any detail. As this was only one month before the city was asking for action, it seemed very last-minute.
My curiosity grew when I read the site plan itself. In it, the city stated that citizens had been given an opportunity to comment on the project at two public meetings: One on November 15, 2016, which 60 people attended, and another on June 13, 2017, which had 100 participants. I had been at those meetings, and I couldn’t remember anyone talking about a paddle center—or, at least, not very much.
At the November 15 meeting, the city had unveiled a whole slate of possible projects for the Western Waterfront, of which a paddle center at Kayak Bay was only one, sketched out in very preliminary detail. And at the June 13 meeting, though Kayak Bay was talked about for a few minutes, most of the meeting was taken up with Mayor Emily Larson’s controversial proposal to eliminate the railroad causeway across Mud Lake. The reason 100 people showed up was because they had opinions about the causeway, not the paddle center. To cite that meeting as proof of public involvement with the paddle center is disingenuous.
The city plans to pay for the paddle center using proceeds from the half-and-half tourism tax, which Mayor Don Ness established in 2014. The purpose of the half-and-half is to raise $18 million for recreation projects in the St. Louis River Corridor. When the tax was approved, the city immediately spent $2.3 million for improvements to Wade Stadium and $2.1 million for a new Spirit Mountain water line (a price tag that eventually grew to $2.5 million). There was little public discussion of these big initial expenditures. Once they were made, however, the administration sat back and said they wanted to carefully plan how to spend the remainder of the $18 million, a process that would include gathering public input.
At a Duluth City Council committee meeting on February 23, 2015, Director of Public Administration Jim Filby Williams presented a list of 26 proposed St. Louis River Corridor projects to the council, which the Ness Administration considered “worthy candidates for funding.” With projects spread across the western part of town, the list included $350,000 for the paddle center, as well as $250,000 for equestrian trail improvements, $500,000 for a new community club in Gary, and $1 million for the new Nordic ski trails at Spirit Mountain. The city council was enthusiastic, and passed a formal resolution of support for the list of projects on March 23, 2015.
Unknown to the council (or the public), however, formal planning for the paddle center had already begun, as I discovered when I requested a list of tourism tax disbursements from the city finance office. In early February of 2015, the administration had asked Hoisington Koegler Associates, Incorporated (HKGI), a Minneapolis landscape architecture firm, to begin work on a “Tallas Island Paddle Center Concept Plan.” The amount of the contract was for $25,000, which is why the council didn’t know about it—council approval is only required for contracts of $40,000 or more. The first payment to HKGI was made on March 9, 2015, two weeks before the council voted to support the project.
Reading through HKGI’s contract with the city sheds more light on the situation. In developing the paddle center concept plan, HKGI’s scope of work called for them to first hold a meeting with the city, the DNR, and the Minnesota Land Trust to “discuss the project [and] provide a strong foundation and unified initial vision for the Kayak Bay Paddle Center between the three key partners.” The question of whether or not a paddle center was necessary was not asked—the assumption in the contract is that there WILL BE a Kayak Bay Paddle Center, and that “three key partners” will decide the basic outline of the project. Neighborhood groups were not included among the key partners.
Secondly, after the initial vision was settled on, HKGI would hold a “visioning discussion with the broader stakeholder group” to “identify the current direction for the Kayak Bay Paddle Center” and “home in on the distinct, low impact design character of the new Paddle Center, reflecting the history, culture, personality and values of Duluth.” Again, the assumption that a new paddle center is necessary at Kayak Bay appears to have already been made. The stakeholder group would only be asked for their thoughts on design elements of the project.
Nevertheless, when that stakeholder meeting was held in 2015, with 39 participants, the idea that Kayak Bay should remain undeveloped did emerge. According to Lisa Luokkala in her presentation to the Parks Commission, the top five ideas that came out of the 2015 meeting were:
(1) nature paths;
(2) parking lot;
(3) pollinator planting;
(4) permanent bathrooms; and
(5) “leave untouched.”
“So we did not build consensus in that meeting,” she summed up, “but we did get a lot of feedback of how people wanted to see that area used.” Consensus or not, the city seems to have never truly considered the “leave untouched” option, as it has never made an appearance in any plan since.
It may well be that Kayak Bay is a fine place for a paddle center, as it does meet a number of the city’s general goals for the Western Waterfront. Nor is there is anything inherently wrong with committing city resources to a project in hopes that it will spur tourism and benefit nearby private developments. After all, that’s one reason we make city investments: To benefit the local economy and add to the quality of life for citizens. But the city administration, once again, as they have done so many times before, appears to have undertaken the paddle center project unilaterally. They are now doing their best to build support for a decision that was reached years ago. To what extent this strategy succeeds remains to be seen.
The paddle center site plan is available for public comment on the city’s website until January 31, at duluthmn.gov/st-louis-river-corridor/western-waterfront-planning.