Duluth blazes trails for talent, quality of life

Trail blazing
Aaron Rogers of Copper Harbor, Mich. builds a section of a new mountain biking trail on Friday, Sept. 21, 2012 at Spirit Mountain in Duluth, Minn. Rogers is a teacher at a trail building school being held at Spirit Mountain that is attracting people from all over the country.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Aiming to become one of the nation's premier destinations for people interested in biking and hiking, Duluth is building trails designed to lure young educated professionals.

Mayor Don Ness and other city officials hope the trails also will attract entrepreneurs seeking a talented workforce. They've set their sights on people like Duluth native Jon Heyesen, who directs business development at Citon Computer Corp., a growing IT services firm.

Heyesen, a technology consultant, grew up in Duluth, but left this summer for a good-paying job in the Twin Cities metro. After a month, he quit and headed back home where he can go for a 10-mile trail run or ride mountain bikes.

"You can go get lost for hours and hours right out my front door," said Heyesen, 34. "It's phenomenal."

For Heyesen and other members of his generation, where they live is just as important as where they work.

"They want to ski, they want the outdoors, they want all of that," he said. "So that becomes more important. That sense of place. People want to be in those places, and then, if they can find work, it's a slam dunk."

That sensibility is the foundation for Duluth's latest economic development strategy.

"We're set up to be potentially one of the best mountain bike trail towns in the country... There's no doubt about that at all."

On a steep, wooded slope at the Spirit Mountain ski area, a construction crew is carving out a trail weaving down the hillside. Designed for mountain bikers, it has a vertical drop of 700 feet, with steep banked curves and jumps.

There are only a handful of similar trails in the nation, said Hansi Johnson, midwest regional director for the International Mountain Biking Association.

"It will be just a downhill, roller coaster ride of a trail!," Johnson said as bikers testing the hairpin curves whipped by.

Johnson, who lives just south of Duluth in Thomson, is in Duluth to help train volunteers to build and maintain segments of Duluth Traverse, a planned 100 mile-long specialty trail that will eventually span the city.

With miles of green space and steep hills, he said, Duluth has a lot of potential for great biking.

"We're set up to be potentially one of the best mountain bike trail towns in the country," Johnson said. "There's no doubt about that at all."

A local mountain biking club, Cyclists of the Gitchee Gumee Shores, recently won a $250,000 state Legacy grant to begin construction of the Traverse trail. The city's is kicking in $100,000 a year from its new parks and libraries fund that voters approved last year.

The Superior Hiking Trail also winds through town. And the city is investing millions of dollars into extending its Lakewalk trail along Lake Superior, and connecting it to the 70-mile Munger Trail that links Hinckley to West Duluth.


Although Duluth has faced fiscal struggles, Ness said spending money on trails is justified. He said employers have to be confident they can find the talent they need, and adding trails can help.

"We do have a high quality of life," Ness said. "And now we're making these investments in the sort of amenities that are particularly attractive and interesting to talented young professionals."

The strategy reflects a dramatic shift away from manufacturing in Duluth's economy.

Factories account for only five percent of all jobs in the Duluth area, less than half the percentage of three decades ago, said Drew Digby, a state regional labor market analyst. Today, the city has more white-collar jobs.

"A lot of the places where we've seen growth are in things like computer system design, or architecture and engineering," Digby said. "Those are places where to attract talent, the companies have to offer something special to the employees."

Local employers confirm the outdoors is an important recruiting tool. Among them is Scott Risdal, vice president of business development for Saturn Systems, a growing software engineering firm with more than 40 employees.

"I don't believe that you could take a business like ours and put it in just any town this size, and be able to recruit software development professionals, Risdal said. "Duluth is special in that way."

Special, but not unique. Across the country, from Bozeman, Mont., to Burlington, Vt., many towns offer outdoor recreation and beautiful scenery. Many of them are investing in parks and trails for the same reason Duluth is.

Ray Rasker, director of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, said such communities want talented workforces. But their larger aim, he said, is to lure "footloose entrepreneurs."

In the digital age, he said, entrepreneurs can build a business wherever they want — as long as the talent is there.

"So there's this competition to try and create an attractive place to live," Rasker said. "That's how you attract a really talented workforce. And that's what you need to succeed in a global economy."

Ness believes Duluth is one of the few communities in the Midwest with the natural advantages, and soon the trails, to succeed in that competition.

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