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March 16, 2014

A tale of two cities

You couldn’t imagine two waterfront cities that are closer together, separated by a mile of water, but in two different states. You are likely thinking of Plattsburgh and Burlington, but I am referring to to Duluth, Minn., and Superior, Wisc. 

Duluth and Superior share a past. They are situated at the western edge of the greatest of all Great Lakes, Lake Superior. In the days of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Duluth and Superior loaded ships with taconite iron ore destined for the mills near Detroit. For 17 years, the lakeship Fitzgerald plied those waters.

The lake, Gordon Lightfoot said, never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy. With 29 lives lost, the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was the most notoriety Superior garnered in recent decades.

Duluth is a different place than that ore town decades ago. Superior is not. The reason is that Duluth learned to celebrate its waterfront, while Superior lines its lake and riverfront with railroad tracks, empty lots, some dusty warehouses, a freeway, a street named Truck Route Street and, yes, a sewage-treatment plant. I don’t think Superior has a garbage dump there, though.

Duluth reinvented itself once it recognized its greatest asset, the Great Lake. In a modest state, they don’t think modestly. Their mayor, Don Ness, made it his mission to convert a site that was once notorious as the most polluted estuary leading into the Great Lakes to become a prime spot for tourists and locals alike. He sees the potential of miles of hiking, biking and ski trails that accentuate the natural resources related to Lake Superior.

His vision is not to spend millions to construct sterile tourist attractions that can be built anywhere, but instead to invest in high-quality experiences that locals and visitors alike can enjoy. He recognizes that while marketing to visitors can give us a nice tourism tailwind, creating the amenities that locals can also enjoy will allow him to also create and attract the next generation of residents.

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