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Craftsmen, backpacks, beer build hope in a needy Duluth neighborhood

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Frost River Trading's Chris Benson
Frost River Trading owner Chris Benson talks about the strength of some of the materials his company uses in manufacturing its packs.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Chris Benson's wife thought he was crazy six years ago when he decided to launch his outdoor gear company in a broken down part of Duluth.

Lincoln Park, an old blue-collar neighborhood about 20 blocks west of downtown and touristy Canal Park, was pocked with boarded up storefronts. Unemployment and poverty rates were much higher than the rest of the city.

"What are you doing?" Benson recalled his wife asking. "You can't go down there at night. It's not safe."

But Benson thought the old brick building he'd bought on West Superior Street was perfect for making his company's hand-crafted outdoor packs. The second floor would work for manufacturing, "and maybe we could figure out how to do a retail store on the first floor."

Frost River Trading, Duluth's Lincoln Park neighborhood
The Frost River Trading storefront along Superior Street in Duluth's Lincoln Park neighborhood's craft district.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

The decision turned out to be great for Benson's business, Frost River — and for the neighborhood. It planted the seeds for what's now a local renaissance, cultivated by an eclectic group of entrepreneurs in a part of Duluth that needed the help.

The Lincoln Park Craft District is an effort to brand the neighborhood as a collection of like-minded businesses, to not only sell more goods, but to help rebuild the neighborhood with jobs and commerce.

Since 2014 there have been at least 25 commercial real estate transactions in Lincoln Park. Seventeen businesses have opened, with more planned for this summer, including another restaurant, coffee shop and pottery studio.

Benson, who opened his street-level shop, happened to be there the day the owners of Bent Paddle Brewing Company came looking for space one street over. He came by to introduce himself and the entrepreneurs quickly learned they shared something else in common.

Like Benson, they chose their location largely for the affordable manufacturing space, said Laura Mullen and Karen Tonnis, who co-own the brewery with their husbands. Bent Paddle has 39 employees now and opened a taproom at the site on West Michigan Street.

"The community doesn't necessarily view Lincoln Park as a place they want to go or spend time in," explained Lars Kuehnow with the Local Support Initiatives Corporation, an economic development group. "They see it as maybe a little bit of a tougher neighborhood, so they're maybe a little more resistant in that sense."

That resistance started to erode when Bent Paddle opened its taproom. A popular new restaurant called OMC Smokehouse, opened by the longtime proprietor of the highly-successful Duluth Grill, has also increased foot traffic.

Duluth's Lincoln Park craft district
Duluth's Lincoln Park craft district, as viewed from Skyline Parkway, is bordered by the Duluth Superior Harbor and Interstate 35 to the south.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

The city of Duluth has also launched a loan program that provides up to $50,000 in bridge financing to help entrepreneurs rehab old buildings.

Similar efforts centered around breweries are flourishing in other cities, including in northeast Minneapolis, where Lincoln Park business owners visited and found "an industrial blue collar neighborhood mixed with really cool authentic buildings, that's now become an arts district, with breweries galore," said Mullen. "We saw that same vibe here" in Lincoln Park.

Lincoln Park is a textbook example of how to do neighborhood economic development, said Joel Bookman, a Chicago-based consultant advising the Lincoln Park group.

"This is economic development at its finest, it's exporting products around the country, and importing capital into Duluth."

Candace LaCosse works at her store
Candace LaCosse works on an order for a pair of leather shoes at her store, Hemlocks Leatherworks.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Because "these are locally based businesses that aren't sending the money to some corporate headquarters in California or elsewhere," Bookman added, the money they make will recirculate in Duluth's economy.

Still, challenges remain. There are concerns about maintaining the neighborhood's newfound momentum. And the cost of rehabbing old buildings is still too high for some entrepreneurs.

But the neighborhood's grit is partly what drew Candace LaCosse to the area. She's a shoemaker who opened her Hemlocks Leatherworks storefront six months ago.

"I like that it doesn't feel like the rest of Duluth. I like that it feels kind of rough and raw," she said, adding that she feels Duluth is gaining a national reputation for carefully-made, high quality products.

"It gets me out of bed in the morning," she said. "I want to come straight away and get to work." 

Dylan Klein packs Bent Paddle beers into crates
Packager Dylan Klein packs Bent Paddle's Golden IPA onto cardboard crates late last month.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

The quality vibe isn't just for owners. 

Rose Lerann, one of Frost River's 32 employees, sews heavy duty canvas and leather packs at the company's Lincoln Park operation. She lives in western Duluth.

"When I make something I want it to look really nice," she said. "If it doesn't look nice, then you don't want anybody to have it, you know what I mean? You do have pride in what you do."