State of the City: Opioids, Housing, Energy are Duluth's 2017 Priorities

Baihly Warfield
March 21, 2017 09:00 AM

These are "loud times," Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said opening her second State of the City address Monday night. However, Larson credited the quiet people for doing good work that keeps the city running every day. 

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She held the speech in Lincoln Park Middle School's auditorium. Many years, it's held downtown. Mayor Larson said the location choice for the 2017 address was intentional. 

"We are here because this neighborhood has a lot of challenges to it," Larson explained. "It is a neighborhood that has high levels of poverty, high rental property percentages. It has a lower life expectancy than other parts of this community."

But Larson said Lincoln Park is also one of Duluth's most exciting neighborhoods. She pointed to its commercial district and the financial investment the city is going to make into the park. 

Before launching into future plans, Larson looked back at her first year as Duluth's first female mayor. 

"Duluth is still small enough to make a difference, and it's big enough to matter," the mayor said. 

She said she spent much of the busy year building a top-notch administration team including Police Chief Mike Tusken, Fire Chief Dennis Edwards and Human Rights Officer Carl Crawford. 

She also touched on putting the dispute with the Fond du Lac band over the Fond-du-Luth Casino behind them, a renewed partnership with St. Louis County and a change to the fee-based street system. Larson said she is proud 460 new apartments and homes were built in the city and 30 new businesses opened. She also talked about major projects that were completed like the maurices downtown headquarters and the $10 million Cirrus expansion. 

Then, it was on to the issues she and the city will focus on throughout the rest of 2017. She began with encouragement. 

"We'll always have issues and ideals that divide us. That won't ever go away," Larson said. "But right now, I want to call us back to each other."

She broke down her priorities into three categories:

-Opioid addiction

-Housing shortage

-Energy and economic future

Opioid Addiction

Mayor Larson acknowledged addictions are diseases, and the opioid problem is both a health and a public safety problem. She said it has reached a "truly feverish pitch." 

She said police have targeted dealers and people who "prey on addicts." 

"Cutting off an addict's supply or arresting their dealer -- it's not enough to solve the problem," Larson said. 

She said having a safe place to go for recovery do not exist for people who need to get in quickly. She said Duluth will work with St. Louis County, the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment, the 6th district judicial court and local hospitals to make an opioid withdrawal unit. There, users could be supported and close to other resources for recovering from addiction. 

"So we make this commitment to those suffering the abuse of opioid drug addiction and to your loved ones and to your families that we see you, and we hear you, and we are not going to leave you behind," Larson said to applause. 

Housing Shortage

Larson said a lack of housing is hurting families and children, destabilizing neighborhoods and barring businesses from recruiting people to work here. 

A 2014 study from Duluth Housing Summit said 4,500 new housing units were needed by 2020. Larson said they are confident they'll meet their targets, but they need to focus on affordable housing for people who make less than $50,000 per year. 

"That's literally one half of Duluth," Larson said. "These are families that are working one or two, maybe more, jobs. They are young professionals who are burdened with debt. They are seniors who really want to stay in their neighborhoods, but they need housing options to be able to do so."

Mayor Larson said another part of her plan to address the issue includes a $1-2 million housing fund for renovations and new developments. She also said she wants to use tax forfeited parcels and renovate condemned buildings.

Energy and Economic Future

Conservation, transferring to more renewable energy and reducing emissions for utilities are how Duluth will continue to become more energy efficient and environmentally responsible.

The point of loudest support during Larson's speech came when she said the city sides with science on climate change. 

"So let me state unequivocally that here in Duluth, we believe that climate change is real," Larson said to quick and loud applause. 

She said the Zenith city is committed to reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. But she set another benchmark for just her first term as mayor. 

"I'm setting a goal of 15 percent reduction in municipal emissions for my first term, which is ambitious," Larson said. "But our times require it."

In closing, she again turned focus to working together as a community. She said her first year in office has been good but challenging. 

"We are being called to act," Larson said. "I am ready. And I know you are too."


Baihly Warfield

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