St. Louis River corridor plan hinges on tourism tax

A plan for revitalizing the St. Louis River corridor is coming into focus.

Back in March, Duluth Mayor Don Ness devoted nearly his entire State of the City address to a proposal for investing up to $18 million in a long-neglected swath of west Duluth along the estuary.

st louis river
Whiteside, or Clough, Island sits in the St. Louis River between Duluth and Superior, Wisconsin. The island was once home to a farm, but is now largely covered with wild vegetation and wetlands. Courtesy Richard Hamilton Smith

The idea, as Ness laid out in a Duluth Chamber of Commerce forum today,  is to build on the area's recreational potential, by enhancing canoe and boat access to the St. Louis River, expanding biking and hiking trails, and improving parks and tourist attractions like Spirit Mountain.

Ness believes that investment will lure more families to the affordable yet aging neighborhoods along the river, as well as businesses to the Grand Avenue corridor and to old brownfield industrial sites. And all that activity would piggyback on the St. Louis River's environmental comeback. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's goal is to have the river removed from a list of "Areas of Concern" by 2020.

But the ambitious proposal depends on Duluth reinstating a "half and half" sales tax for up to 15 years (.5% on lodging, .5% on restaurants and bars) to up to $18 million to fund the upgrades. Earlier this year the Legislature authorized Duluth to reinstate the tax, which expired in 2012 (it was previously used to fund improvements in the Canal Park area of downtown).

Now the Duluth City Council must decide whether to approve the tax proposal. Ness said a community forum will be scheduled for next week to gather public input.

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The city is also banking on the tax dollars to provide local matching funds for two projects recently funded by the Legislature: $3.5 million for a new water pipeline from the St. Louis River to Spirit Mountain to make artificial snow at the ski area, and $2.3 million to refurbish historic Wade Stadium in west Duluth.

At a news conference last month, Ness said if the City Council decided not to implement the "half and half" tax, "then we'd have to look at a different source, probably property taxes," for the local match.

Duluth should no longer just be associated with Lake Superior, Ness said. "Duluth should be defined both by the world's greatest lake, and one of the largest freshwater estuaries."