Economic & Business Development


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Postcard of the old Clyde Iron Works in its prime, via Perfect Duluth Day.

As part of the unfolding saga of start-up businesses as the crucial creators of new jobs, and of particular start-ups like craft breweries (along with tech incubators, arts companies, manufacturing “maker spaces,” and others) in bringing life to fringe areas of recovering cities, I talked about the civic and economic role of the Bent Paddle Brewery in Duluth, Minnesota.

Reader Peter Hatinen of Minneapolis says that Duluth is actually a test case of the Jane Jacobs-like process of distributed, organic revival that is happening a number of the cities we have visited and written about. The step-by-step evolution he’s describing is worth presenting in detail, because it has such resonance elsewhere.

And for anyone who hasn’t (yet) spent time in Duluth, a city I love and have visited at least a dozen times since the late 1990s, it’s important to understand its economic background. Through the past generation Duluth has fit anyone’s definition of a struggling Rust Belt city. Its grand homes and faded-glory downtown buildings were from a lost era of wealth from timber, ore and grain shipments, and heavy manufacturing. Through much of the late-20th century Duluth’s factories closed, its downtown decayed, its population aged and shrank.

Recently a lot of has been changing, fast, as I sketched out in my recent cover story. Peter Hatinen describes more of what is going on:

After time in New York City and Boston, my wife and I settled in Minneapolis.  Much of my family grew up and settled around Duluth.  Since settling in Minneapolis ourselves, my wife and I have spent nearly every other weekend in Duluth during the summers, delighting in its restaurants, breweries, and distillery.  We then pay penance for our indulgences by sailing, rowing, and running or biking the city’s countless trails.

Duluth’s renaissance has been remarkable.

I suspect it started with the interstate tunnel project. Much like Boston’s Big Dig, that project reunited the city with its gorgeous waterfront. That led to the burgeoning development in and around canal park which, in turn, spread eastward and up the hill toward the university.

But, for a decade, or even two, it never spread west. That division of the city always saddened me.  One thing I’ve loved about the city is the unique combination of industry and the stunning natural beauty of Lake Superior and the rock faces and bluffs that rise out of it. Why did the prosperity stop roughly at Mesaba Avenue?

A handful of years ago, things began to change.  You and Deb may have visited or been told about Clyde Ironworks, which was a foundry that has been converted into a beautiful restaurant and entertainment space.  [JF note: yes, we have been there!] Nearby now is the Heritage Hockey Rink and Sports Center, which is dear to my heart as a lifelong fan of hockey. It’s a veritable shrine to hockey in Duluth.

Google Earth street view of the Clyde Iron Works

Now we come to your beloved beer.  Bent Paddle cast its lot in the heart of downtrodden Duluth, about two miles from the traffic it could have picked up from Clyde Ironworks.  (If you haven’t done so, please some time stop by Northern Waters Smokehouse, pick up sandwiches, and then head out to Bent Paddle.  Sit down with your sandwiches and beer and just watch the demographic of the visitors who come and go.  We love it.  There is a demotic genuineness that place fosters that is rare and is to be prized).

Since Bent Paddle has established itself, it has created a dynamo of entrepreneurial activity nearby.   Your thesis about breweries generating growth outside of vital city centers is being affirmed as we speak.   

You’ve certainly heard about its wonderful relationship with Vikre distillery down by the waterfront. [JF: Yes] We take great pleasure in that symbiotic relationship.  But, what is more important for the
city is what is happening very nearby the brewery.  In the last couple of weeks, the Duluth News Tribune has highlighted a new restaurant,
another brewery, and a new coffeehouse, all opening within blocks of Bent Paddle.

The investment Bent Paddle has made and the traffic it has inspired are clearly driving this development.  It’s wonderful.  I wish I had another lifetime to watch what will happen on the west side of town. [JF note: and I, to visit all of the countless other places about which we’ve heard similar reports.]

Your observations about Loll, Cirrus, and Bent Paddle are right on, but only scratch the surface. Duluth is an amazing place.

Skyline on Lake Superior, with some of the elevators and port facilities that were part of Duluth’s original source of wealth:

Walkway outside Fitger’s Hotel and Brewery, one of the early anchors of the rejuvenated city.

Previously in the “Paradise [Your City’s Name Here]” series, please see “Paradise Beijing.”