Duluth is Not What You Think It is

Duluth is Not What You Think It is

In its latest trip to the national spotlight, Duluth was both commended and disparaged by Rolling Stone, a magazine named after a song by a native of the city. Yet, Duluth has much more to offer than what was mentioned in recent coverage.

Duluth is coming off of an exciting week. Grandma’s Marathon on June 16 was just the start. On the following Wednesday, a campaign rally by President Donald Trump attracted thousands of supporters and protesters, as well as regional and national media.

For many Duluthians, perhaps the most stimulating part of the week was Minneapolis-based national journalist Ana Marie Cox’s online recap of the Trump rally for Rolling Stone, which included a curiously cartoonish sketch of my adoptive hometown. Clearly not happy to be here, Cox portrayed Duluth as a kind of dysfunctional Rust Belt relic.

There’s no need to put a late hit on the piece. Duluth Mayor Emily Larson provided a thorough, eloquent rebuttal that was gentle but firm, and Cox has offered mea culpas. But it is worth addressing another inaccurate perception that even many of Duluth’s fans across the state have about the city: that it’s all cool views, craft brews and fat-tired bikes. In other words, a place whose economy is built on tourism and not much more.

But there’s a lot more to that story, too. It’s not just “eds and meds”—universities and health care facilities. And while it’s certainly true that the outdoor activities are one of the reasons why people visit and move here, that outdoor ethic also has given rise to a remarkably vibrant cut-and-sew industry. Names include gear manufacturers Frost River, Duluth Pack and Aerostich, among several others. Related to that “sector” are a growing number of craft and “maker” businesses producing furniture, pottery, even shoes. These are small businesses, and some sell globally. They reflect an entrepreneurial culture that has begun to thrive in Duluth. And west of downtown and Canal Park, that culture is starting to blossom in the Lincoln Park Craft District.

In addition to the craft brewers, perhaps the city’s most celebrated entrepreneurial endeavor is Cirrus Aircraft, whose personal airplanes and jets have gained fans worldwide. Cirrus is the lead plane in a fleet of Duluth aviation business that includes commercial-jet maintenance firm AAR as well as several small suppliers and service firms.

Cirrus is also one of the city’s chief manufacturers. And while the U.S. Steel mill, Clyde Iron and other large heavy industries are gone, you can find numerous smaller manufacturers—call them old-school makers—all over the West End and elsewhere. Visitors travelling I-35 have seen billboards for a company called Altec, which needs to hire dozens of people. Late last year, Altec, which makes aerial lift trucks, announced a $8.45 million expansion of its manufacturing plant just west of Duluth, with plans to create 100 jobs—a roughly 50 percent increase in head count.

The Duluth skyline.

A few other of what you could call “old-school makers” include GPM (mining slurry pumps), Moline Mfg. (commercial baking equipment), ME Elecmetal (heavyweight castings used for grinding and crushing). Straddling the distinction between old- and new- school are sister companies Loll Designs and Epicurean, which makes cool outdoor furniture and kitchenware from recycled materials.

Duluth was built on extraction of natural resources—iron and timber, primarily. Those industries survive, though they employ fewer people these days. The waterfront ore docks and the rail lines that serve them testify to that history. To many people, those docks and rail bridges look rusty and “industrial” (not necessarily a complimentary adjective). But they’re also still very much in use. While the classification yards that dominated downtown are (mostly) gone, the Duluth region is still a rail hub. And it very much remains a working harbor, shipping not only taconite but also grain, limestone, timber products and wind-power equipment.

And yes indeed, there is a tech scene. In addition to the creative marketing shops and software development firms hiring (and looking for) tech talent, I’d add a couple of recent start-ups with particular promise. One is Buzz Frenzy, which offers small businesses an inexpensive opportunity to target potential customers with Facebook ads. Another is MC Cubed, whose electronic devices and apps help shippers of frozen food and other temperature-sensitive cargo monitor temperature levels in transit.

I haven’t mentioned energy, food products or an international “fashion entertainment” company called Runway Manhattan. But you get the idea.

None of these businesses are Fortune 1000s. Many aren’t glamorous or notably hip. And that speaks to the fundamentally practical, small-scale nature of Duluth. In many ways, it’s still a hardy industrial city, and that’s high praise.

No one living in Duluth should deny that the city has problems and challenges. It’s a city, after all, and an old one. Cox noted some of those social ills—domestic violence stats, a 21 percent poverty rate—and she was right to do so. (That noted, the percentage of people in Minneapolis and St. Paul living below the poverty level is about the same as in Duluth.) You can also add on top of that the difficulty college grads here face trying to land a career job. And that’s not to mention the condition of our streets.

But Duluth’s citizens, nonprofits and government are actively addressing those roadblocks. And those problems aren’t discouraging people from launching and maintaining a variety of durable businesses. It’s Minnesota’s most fascinating city. And not just to visit.

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