From steel to stoke

How Duluth became a recreation Mecca

There is down on your knees and then there is kicked while you are down on your knees.
Picture this: a city so down on its luck, so down on its self-image, that even the people who lived there believed the stereotypes the outside world had branded it with.
This isn’t the Duluth, Minnesota, you think of now. Visitors come to ride mountain bikes and explore the miles of city trails. It’s a regional recreation destination, with its national prominence growing steadily. People think of Duluth and they think biking, hiking and skiing. But that wasn’t always Duluth’s reputation. It once was a king of industry and then a busted, forgotten wasteland until the people of Duluth changed the narrative and their city.
Duluth was once a place the native Sioux and Chippewa considered the land of milk and honey. The St. Louis River, which flows through the city and is one of North America’s only freshwater estuaries, was also one of the largest continuous beds of wild rice in the country which fed waterfowl and fish like walleye, smallmouth bass and the legendary Lake Superior sturgeon, which grew to more than 6 feet in length.
The estuary fed into Lake Superior with its own flourishing ecosystem. The hilly forest surrounding all of this was dense in ancient white pine and oak savanna.
Within 100 years of European settlement that had all changed. They displaced the Chippewa. They harvested the timber. And they used the St. Louis River as a highway to move millions of feet to lumber mills, destroying nearly all the wild rice.
Heavy industry followed, taking ore from the Iron Range to the river to create ships and steel.
World War II and its lust for machinery soon sucked the range dry of its pure ore, and by the 1970s the whole mad cycle came crashing to a halt. The river and the lake had provided for people for thousands of years but could no longer sustain it.
Duluth went from a hero of industry to an industrial graveyard nearly overnight.
The community of Duluth, once one of the wealthiest in North America, if not the world, became the story of the Rust Belt. The outside world called Duluth busted, an industrial wasteland and an Arctic no-go zone full of polka and hockey.
So how long does an epic hangover of this magnitude last?
Until the good people who are part of the community stand up and shake it off.
I have lived in Duluth on and off since the late 1980s. In that time frame I witnessed the massive change in Duluth. People look at a city now known as an outdoor recreation paradise and often ask how it happened.
People expect answers like the number of dollars invested or other technical or strategic information, but the reason Duluth has rebounded is because Duluth finally started valuing what it has versus what it doesn’t.
Much like the child in Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax,” holding the last truffula tree seed, local Duluthians have gone back to what has been left of the land of milk and honey and started to revitalize and restore it.
Duluth’s once explosive growth dictated its city limits should be set 27 miles wide. When growth halted, the city was left with more than 11,000 acres of open space, much of it continuous and hilly.
A segment of the Duluth population always understood Duluth’s natural amenities. These are hardcore paddlers, cyclists, climbers and skiers. While the rest of the community lamented the failing industrial infrastructure and the voids it was leaving, these people surfed the waves at Stoney Point and climbed the ice at the abandoned quarry in the city. Historically these recreation enthusiasts were disparate groups, more concerned with catching the next wave than entering the noisy political discourse surrounding community revitalization. But local cyclists and biking groups sparked a change.
Through vision, planning and good old-fashioned sweat, the local Duluth mountain bike community came up with an idea for a 100-mile trail system interconnecting those thousands of acres of parks and open space along with nearly every neighborhood of the city. Efforts for what would be called the Duluth Traverse started in about 2008. To date this project has raised over $1.5 million and constructed more than 70 miles of purpose-built, professionally designed single track. This effort has been so successful that Duluth was recently awarded the International Mountain Biking Association Gold-Level Ride Center designation, the only one in the Midwest and one of five in the world.
As this effort gained success and worldwide accolades, the leadership in Duluth took notice. Soon Don Ness, mayor at the time, realized that this project was building a new sense of pride in the city and because of that, in about 2009, he decided not only to invest city funds and staff time into it, he also decided to invest in other destination-quality outdoor recreational projects as well. He saw outdoor recreation as another means or revitalization for the community.
That effort has borne fruit in the fact that Duluth was given Outside Magazine’s Best Outdoor Town in 2014. More importantly, the suite of outdoor experiences the user groups envisioned were so powerful that the City of Duluth, by a unanimous vote of the City Council, decided to bond $20 million to implement them.
Now in addition to the Duluth Traverse there is an effort at creating a new park with ice climbing in the once abandoned quarry, as well as a new Nordic center with state-of-the-art snowmaking and lights. A National Water Trail is also planned on the now rebounding St. Louis River and more hiking loops are being added to the legendary Superior Hiking Trail.
Today, along with the rise in craft beer (Duluth has 10 breweries in a city of 95,000) and what by all accounts is a booming economy, the community of Duluth, instead of apologizing for its lack of steel production, is seeing the export of “stoke” as one the main reasons people choose to live and spend their tourism dollars here. ♦
— Hansi Johnson was one of the International Mountain Biking Association’s first regional directors. He worked in that position for five and half years in the Upper Midwest Region. Johnson was recently hired by the Minnesota Land Trust to serve as its director of recreational lands. He consults with the city of Duluth, Minnesota, to increase its quality of life and tourism economy through destination quality outdoor recreation. He lives in Thomson, Minnesota, with his wife Margaret and 8-year-old son Tae.

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