Photo by Ryan Griffin-Stegink
Duluth, Minn., Mayor Don Ness and Gary, Ind., Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson exchange ideas at the March 16 Gary and Region Investment Project Urban Exchange, hosted by MPC and The Times Media Company.
Duluth, Minn., and Gary, Ind.: Aside from the obvious differences in racial demographics – Gary is 84 percent African American and Duluth is 90 percent White – the similarities are uncanny. These two mid-sized towns have grappled for decades with the loss of industry. As a result, populations plummeted and both have experienced significant unemployment. However, it is not just the challenges, but the opportunities that bind these communities. This is why the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) and The Times Media Company brought Mayor Don Ness of Duluth and Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary together on March 16 at the Gary/Chicago International Airport to exchange ideas as part of the third Gary and Region Investment Project Urban Exchange.
Those who live in metropolitan Chicago and Northwest Indiana may have heard the sentiment, “Let’s just let Gary fall into Lake Michigan.” In 1983 in Duluth, someone with a dark sense of humor painted on a billboard, “Will the last person out of Duluth turn out the lights?” At the Urban Exchange, it was clear that neither Mayor Ness, a second-term mayor, nor the newly elected Mayor Freeman-Wilson embrace these negative sentiments. Both leaders bring tenacity and realistic optimism to their cities, an approach welcomed by the crowd of more than 100 people who attended the Urban Exchange.
The mutual respect between these two mayors was obvious as they both spoke passionately about bringing their cities back from the brink. Lakefront reclamation and airport redevelopment are common strategies driving revitalization in both cities. The two cities are economically tied as well, through major corporations such as United States Steel Corp. and Arcelor Mittal, as well as by the exchange of goods and natural resources. However, after witnessing the mayors' lively exchange, bold leadership and vision are the true ties that bind Duluth and Gary.
When Mayor Ness took office in 2008, the city faced an overwhelming number of political and financial problems, which could very easily have consumed a new administration. Mayor Ness realized that these challenges overshadowed very positive fundamentals in his city, such as a quality housing stock, stunning lakefront views, cultural assets, and a well-positioned downtown. As such, while tackling seemingly intractable issues such as pensions and aging infrastructure, the Ness administration also focused on targeted reinvestment around key assets, such as Lake Superior; redefining and diversifying the local economy, driven by healthcare, colleges, and aviation; and, changing the spirit of the city. That last point was no small feat and involved connecting with the values of Duluth residents, promoting the city's authentic strengths, and pulling in talented and enthusiastic leaders from every sector.
Mayor Ness described three key approaches his administration has taken to turn his city around:
- Transparency: Providing clarity about the scope and seriousness of the problems and trusting that people will understand.
- Complete ownership: Not blaming past administrations, but acknowledging the challenges and holding himself and his administration accountable for the solutions.
- Bold action to address issues: Putting himself in harm’s way because “that is what the people want.”
Another secret to Duluth’s success has been a change in approach by the business community. According to Mayor Ness, business leaders started to take ownership of Duluth's economic issues. Instead of complaining about the environment and challenges to doing business, private sector leaders stepped forward and said, “We have skin in the game. It’s our responsibility to make Duluth a better place to do business and create jobs.” They didn’t invest solely in efforts that strictly benefited business, but also in the type of investments that create a healthy and vibrant community where people want to live. For instance, business leaders targeted resources to reclaim and develop the lakefront and Duluth’s central business district.
This bold action has reaped tremendous benefits. Even while having to make unpopular, but necessary decisions such as raising taxes and holding the line on public employee salary increases, the City of Duluth has received notable support. Resident opinions of the direction the City is taking, the image or reputation of Duluth, and residents' perception of the value of services received for the taxes paid all significantly improved between 2009 and 2011. When Mayor Ness ran for a second term, he was unopposed; last year, he enjoyed an 86 percent approval rating. Mayor Ness asserted that investing in quality of life needs, unique and authentic strengths and sense of place, and the people who “choose Duluth” were some of the most fundamental economic development strategies the City has deployed.
While only in its first three months, it is obvious that Mayor Freeman-Wilson's administration is on the right track. She has brought on a talented and committed team to drive and implement a focused agenda, and they already have reached out to a range of key partners, from regional organizations to business leaders, to join “Team Gary.” At the event, Mayor Freeman-Wilson clearly outlined the challenges Gary faces, but also spoke passionately about early wins, such as the redevelopment of the Gary/Chicago International Airport and pending demolition of the derelict Sheraton Hotel that has been plaguing downtown Gary for years. She described her vision for how Gary can deploy and leverage existing resources toward strategic investments in areas with the greatest potential to stimulate growth and tax revenue. Given the time Mayor Freeman-Wilson’s transition team enjoyed leading up to the general elections, the City is poised to move quickly from planning to implementation. Through her leadership, passionate staff, and new and excited partners, it is apparent that the conversation is already changing about Gary.