Those who think of Duluth as an awesome tourist destination and great-outdoors gateway might not know or remember that in the early 1980s, the Zenith City seemed down for the count. It was Minnesota’s own link in the rust belt, with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. The iron and steel business that had all but defined Duluth was in steep decline, with workers and young people fleeing the city’s red-clay soil for greener pastures.
The receding snow of the latest recession is revealing a city in much better shape. Its unemployment rate as of November 2012 was 5.6 percent, not too far from Minnesota’s average of 5.1 percent. And that’s not just due to a steady tourism base or a strong but perhaps less rock-firm iron ore industry.
These days, Duluth is far less dependent on jobs from “big outside companies” such as U.S. Steel (which closed its Duluth works in the 1970s), according to Mayor Don Ness. Particularly in the past decade, other companies—many locally based—have taken up much of the slack. The energetic Ness, a Duluth native, emphasizes the importance of homegrown innovation and entrepreneurship.
So meet some of the people and businesses who’ve staked a claim to a newer Duluth.
After graduating from Boston’s Berklee College of Music, Marty Weintraub became part of the 1980s Minneapolis music scene as a keyboardist. He entered the advertising business and in 1995 became creative services director for the CBS television station in Duluth. About seven years ago, he started his own firm. AimClear is a marketing agency focusing on search and social media platforms, and it’s booming. It was named to the 2012 Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing private companies in America. From 2008 through 2011, AimClear grew 823 percent, ranking it 463rd nationwide and eighth in Minnesota. Client credits include Intel and Siemens, as well as several startups, and Weintraub has become a social media thought leader.
"We were lucky to unearth an improbably rich vein of golden marketing talent in Duluth,” Weintraub wrote in an e-mail from Israel, where he was speaking at a social media conference. “Ten of our  employees are products of Duluth colleges. Marketers from all over the world have asked me for years where and how we were fortunate enough to score such amazing employees, several of whom are now internationally respected in our online marketing industry. I tell ’em that we grew our team at home. This is one of my favorite factoids about AimClear."
Jason and Lucie Amundsen were professional writers in the Twin Cities before transplanting to Duluth in 2008. When the position Jason came to Duluth for dried up, he decided to turn his hobby raising egg-laying chickens into a business, which he and Lucie named Locally Laid. He found property near Wrenshall, a small town south of Duluth. Locally Laid is the only commercial-scale pasture-raised egg operation in the state, and after just a few months in business, it has expanded to nearly 3,000 hens to meet demand in Duluth and in the Twin Cities. Lucie is Locally Laid’s self-described “marketing chick.”
The opportunity was in selling nutritious eggs with a local flavor (in more ways than one). “Prior to our entry in the market . . . if you were to look for local eggs, they’d be coming from Rochester or Iowa,” Jason Amundsen says. “There was a glaring vacancy in the market.” And his farm’s feathered employees are working to fill it.
Two married couples—Laura and Colin Mullen, Karen and Bryon Tonnis—are four Twin Cities expatriates who came north to start Bent Paddle Brewing Company, a craft production brewery that will be the newest player in Duluth’s effervescent beer scene. Bent Paddle is now in the midst of renovating a 10,600-square-foot West Duluth building, which at one time housed a steel business, into a brewery and taproom to open this spring. Colin and Bryon, experienced Twin Cities–area brewers, tout Lake Superior’s soft water as similar in quality to the great aquifer beneath the Czech Republic, the birthplace of the smooth Pilsner style.
“Duluth has been unbelievably supportive,” Colin Mullen says, citing help and cheerleading from local service companies and other businesses. Adds Laura Mullen: “There’s this young entrepreneurial energy in the city that we’re just excited to be a part of.”
By no means is the story all about newcomers. Duluth native George Goldfarb joined Maurices, a Duluth-based clothing retailer, more than 25 years ago, working his way up to president. Maurices began in the 1930s as a downtown Duluth clothier. It now has 850 stores in the United States and Canada (including 15 in the Twin Cities metro); its target market is 20-something women in small and midsize markets. According to Goldfarb, Maurices has plans to open more than 60 new stores in 2013, after adding 57 last year. The company’s downtown offices are bursting at the seams with 400 employees—in a couple of years, Maurices will be moving to a new Class A office building a few blocks away.
Goldfarb says that Maurices likes to promote from within, but that it hasn’t been all that difficult to lure talent from outside Duluth. The city offers a stronger work-life balance (not to mention easier commutes) than larger metropolitan areas. Goldfarb also says that the company’s nimble, friendly culture attracts retail talent with a taste for entrepreneurial thinking, whether that’s product offerings or social media marketing. “You have to be innovative” in the retail industry, Goldfarb says. “You have to be trying new things. And that’s certainly something we foster.”
These four companies don’t represent the whole mosaic of Duluth. For one thing, there are still plenty of industrial firms here. The point is that these days, more and more people from inside and outside the city are finding greener pastures here.