Growth on the Great Lakes

City of Duluth

Situated on the shores of Lake Superior in Northeastern Minnesota, Duluth has a long and storied history as a major inland port and a city of industry.

Since its incorporation in 1857, the city of Duluth has had its share of economic highs and lows, but is currently in the midst of a renaissance that has made it an appealing place to work, live, and play. The city of Duluth has definitely lived up to its nickname as the “Zenith City of the Unsalted Seas.”

Since its founding, Duluth has been a port city, with commodities such as furs, iron ore, timber, and grain shipped from its shores. Located at the westernmost point of the Great Lakes, the Port of Duluth-Superior [Wisconsin] is the farthest inland freshwater port in North America and the busiest port on the Great Lakes, handling an average of 40 million short tons of cargo and nearly 1,000 vessel visits each year. For nearly two centuries, the port has accommodated the maritime transportation needs of the North American Heartland for a variety of industries including agriculture, forestry, mining, manufacturing, construction, power generation, and passenger cruising. Ocean-going vessels connect Duluth to the world via the St. Lawrence Seaway, and the sight of these giant ships is a common occurrence in the city.


Duluth’s economy has been historically defined by the ‘four Ts:’ Taconite, Tourism, Timber, and Transportation. The city has had a history of economic peaks and valleys since its founding; by 1869, it was the fastest growing city in the United States, and it was on track to become the largest city in the Midwest. However, a stock market crash in 1873 threatened the very existence of the city. But its location on Lake Superior and access to Northeast Minnesota’s forests and natural resources kept the momentum going. By the beginning of the 20th century, Duluth’s population neared 100,000 people, and it was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the nation.

During the 20th century, the city thrived on heavy industry and manufacturing, but like many smaller Midwestern cities, Duluth began to experience decline. By the 1980s, it was recognized by the federal government as one of the ten most distressed cities in the country, with an unemployment rate that climbed as high as 20 percent.

Mayor Don Ness describes how stressful the early 1980s were. “These were really dire times,” Mayor Ness says. “There wasn’t much diversification in the economy and the industries Duluth was built on were highly cyclical, so recessions would hit our community very hard.”

City leaders felt that Duluth had too much to offer for it to go into a downward spiral. “Leaders turned their attention to the lake and opened access to tourism,” Mayor Ness explains. “They also made a commitment to a service-based economy and more high-tech and high-skilled manufacturing focus, moving away from the heavy industrial focus that Duluth was founded on.”

Mayor Ness adds that the city has a hard-earned stability and resiliency. “We were able to stop that downward momentum that a lot of our peer cities were going through,” he says.

Over the last decade, progress has been made to attract a new generation of workers, entrepreneurs, and a highly skilled manufacturing base. “Duluth has adopted a new culture that better takes advantage of the uniqueness of what the city has to offer,” Mayor Ness explains. “This new strategy is taking hold, and it’s creating population growth and rising incomes and getting into an upward cycle that Duluth has not been in for nearly 70 years.”


After years of economic struggles, Duluth is presently enjoying a falling unemployment rate, several major industry investments and a diverse local economy. Mayor Ness cites Duluth’s highly skilled and educated workforce and a low job turnover rate. “We are beating the competition to bring new jobs to our area because of our workforce advantages,” he says.

Aviation support company AAR opened a maintenance facility in an abandoned aircraft maintenance hangar at Duluth International Airport in 2012. The company chose Duluth after a nationwide search and has hired 300 people over the last 18 months. Aircraft manufacturer Cirrus Corporation has been based in the city since 1984 and was cited as one of the reasons for AAR opening their facility in the city.

Other major employers include SMDC/Essentia Health System, University of Minnesota – Duluth, and the 148th Air National Guard Base.

Duluth’s long, proud, industrial heritage has not been lost in the increasing diversification of the city’s economy. Mayor Ness discussed how many brownfields and superfund sites around the city are being repurposed for new development. Examples of redeveloped brownfields include the Canal Park Brewing Company, Heritage Sports Center, and the Duluth Children’s Museum.

“We are refreshing our industrial and manufacturing heritage with a new and modern approach,” says the Mayor. “City leaders have spent a great deal of time, energy, and resources to make these sites project-ready for new development. We’re proud of that effort and will continue that as we see more demand to bring jobs to Duluth as more sites become available.”

Future plans include the redevelopment of West Duluth, which served as the heart of the industrial and manufacturing economy for the region. Other plans include investing in outdoor recreational amenities, the cleanup of the St. Louis River, and more brownfield redevelopment to attract more high-skilled manufacturing companies.


A unique aspect of Duluth that makes it attractive to new residents also makes it appealing for tourism – its numerous outdoor recreational activities. Mayor Ness says that Duluth has “world-class” recreation opportunities: “We have four seasons, and we have activities available such as skiing, kayaking, mountain biking, and hiking. For a person who is passionate about engaging in outdoor activities, we have these available all within the city limits.”

Indeed, the city’s stunning natural beauty and views have made tourism one of Duluth’s largest industries. Over 3.5 million people visit the city annually and create an economic impact of $780 million. The city is developing a 100-mile mountain biking system within its city limits, and when complete, it will be the largest, most extensive system in North America.

“A city that is committed to investing in mountain biking is a city that is clearly invested in healthy living,” Mayor Ness continues. “Taking advantage of our natural beauty makes our city a compelling destination.”

One of the city’s most notable landmarks is the Aerial Lift Bridge. Originally built in 1905, the bridge was upgraded in 1930 to a vertical lift bridge to span the Duluth Ship Canal. The bridge can be raised to its full height in about three minutes, and goes up 25 to 30 times daily during busiest times of shipping season. The span is about 390 feet high.

Other attractions include Canal Park and the Lakewalk – a scenic walking and biking path along the western shore of Lake Superior that offers shopping and dining in addition to its beautiful views.

Duluth has a vibrant arts culture and is home to art museums, performance centers, community and college theater productions, and festivals throughout the year. Some of Minnesota’s most visited attractions are in the city, including The Marine Museum, Glensheen Mansion, and the Great Lakes Aquarium. Duluth also serves as the gateway to the North Shore of Lake Superior, which attracts visitors due to its scenic wilderness of forests and wildflowers.

Major events throughout the year include the Homegrown Music Festival, which is an annual showcase of local bands and is scheduled during the first week of May each year. The event has grown from featuring 10 acts in 1999 to 200 this year. “We have found there are a number of acts who can live in Duluth, support themselves as a musician, and tour nationally and internationally,” says Mayor Ness.

The Mayor believes that Duluth is attractive to people who are seeking a strong university presence, outdoor recreation, and vibrant arts scene within a smaller city. “We’re fitting the niche for that need in the upper Midwest the same way Asheville is for the Southeast or Bend [Oregon] is for the Pacific Northwest,” he explains.

Recognizing Duluth’s attributes, such as its community values, scenery and attractions, and diversifying economy will help to attract high-skilled workers and ensure that the city has a bright future. “We used to compare our city to other upper Midwest cities that had more suburban type growth. We were feeling bad because we weren’t seeing the same type of growth patterns, but the attributes we do have can create a unique and authentic sense of place and experience that creates an incredible competitive advantage for our city. We learned we don’t need to be the first choice for 100 percent of people who are looking to relocate, but we can be the first choice for five to ten percent of people in our region who will fully appreciate and buy into this unique set of attributes and experiences they won’t be able to find in other communities.”

For more information about the City of Duluth, please visit

July 21, 2018, 3:48 AM EDT

The Gig Economy

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