After decades of falling, western Duluth ready to climb

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Casket Quarry
One place that is being targeted for investment in western Duluth is an area called "Casket Quarry," which is situated near the end of 59th Avenue West. It offers rock climbing during the summer.
Derek Montgomery | For MPR News

Casket Quarry sits abandoned high on a hill above western Duluth. Its stone once helped build railroads. When it closed, it left behind little more than a 100-foot cliff.

Now, though, after years of people pulling things out of western Duluth, there's a plan to put something back.

City leaders want to invest up to $50 million in outdoor recreation projects to revitalize what many consider a long overlooked part of the city. The Duluth City Council will cast a preliminary vote on an ambitious plan to build trails and other amenities to breathe new life into an area that was once the industrial heart of the region.

Mayor Don Ness
Duluth mayor Don Ness talks about his efforts to spur investment in western Duluth Wednesday, March 18, 2015 near Kingsbury Creek in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery | For MPR News

"It's a big vision," said Duluth Mayor Don Ness. "It's a very optimistic vision in a part of town that hasn't necessarily embraced this sort of thing in the past."

Last year, the city won legislative approval to raise $18 million from a half percent sales tax on hotels and bars and restaurants to help fund the plan. Ness says the goal is to supplement that with another $32 million in grants and private donations. It's a key part of the strategy to grow Duluth's population and tax base.

"You can't get there if you're not investing in the quality of life, and not investing in the things that make life in Duluth unique and special and different from any other regional center in the Upper Midwest," Ness said. "The outdoor recreation tied to the natural beauty of our area is the selling point."

The western edge of Duluth extends for more than six miles along the St. Louis River from Interstate 35, far from downtown. The old quarry, where rock was mined and later crushed to lay railroad beds, is hidden just below the city's Skyline Drive.

Hansi Johnson
Hansi Johnson, director of recreational lands for the Minnesota Land Trust, talks about ice climbing opportunities within the city limits of Duluth, Minn., Wednesday, March 18, 2015 at an area called Casket Quarry.
Derek Montgomery | For MPR News

It's visited mostly by expert ice climbers now. But Hansi Johnson hopes to turn it into a destination — an ice climbing park that pros and beginners alike can enjoy.

"I'd love to see this place teeming with not only the Gore-Tex clad climber, but also the kid with the jeans and the T-shirt trying it out for the first time," said Johnson, the Minnesota Land Trust's director for recreational lands.

"The sense of scale, it's kind of hard to wrap your head around how big it is," Johnson said on a recent day as water dripped off the last remaining sheet of ice clinging to the sheer rock face. "You almost have this alpine feeling experience right in the middle of the city."

Western Duluth waterfront
The western waterfront in Duluth is poised to see a lot of investment in the coming years.
Derek Montgomery | For MPR News

It's arguably the most attention-grabbing component of Duluth's big plan, which also calls for new mountain biking, hiking, skiing and equestrian trails, a paddling center, and improvements to city parks, the zoo and Spirit Mountain.

Many Duluth visitors have likely never been to the far west side of the city, where a string of small neighborhoods sit between the St. Louis River and the steep hillside. Paper mills, factories, and a steel mill lined the shore decades ago. For decades, they dumped pollution into the water.

"If you were here in the late 60s, early 70s, you'd be holding your nose right now," said longtime resident Bill Majeski as he stood by a boat ramp on the river that's expected to be a new trailhead.

Bill Majewski
Bill Majewski talks about the condition of the St. Louis River years ago when it was unsafe for fishing and smelled of pollution Wednesday, March 18, 2015 near the Munger Landing on the St. Louis River in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery | For MPR News

Majeski moved to the nearby Morgan Park neighborhood in 1972, when he says you could still see fumes belching from the U.S. Steel plant next door and he wouldn't touch or go near the water.

Since then, the city built a new wastewater treatment plant. The federal and state governments have pumped tens of millions of dollars recently into restoring the waterway.

"The fishing has gotten good, the sturgeon are coming back, the walleyes are biting like crazy, the crappies are here," Majeski said. "There are a lot of things going on here that attract people."

But there are also old industrial sites that still need to be cleaned up. Many homes are old and need repair and boarded up buildings dot the small business district.

St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg, who lives on the west side of Duluth, hopes the city's plan will spark reinvestment. While he supports investing in recreation, Dahlberg doesn't want to ignore the area's past.

"Let's not forget about industry, he said. "I think we can do both, and I think we can protect the environment. That's the picture we have to look at."

That new picture of the west side of Duluth will likely take time to come into focus.

Assuming the council approves the plan tonight, Ness says much of the public investment will occur over the next five years. The neighborhoods that once housed factory workers are home to many seniors now. Ness expects a lot of turnover in those homes over the next 10 years.

"We want a new generation of homeowners to come in and choose this area," he said. "We want folks to take pride in this neighborhood, and having access to world class recreation is going to be a major part of it."