Creating a New Identity (1996–2006)

A ticket for the first official Homegrown Music Festival.

Doty won his third election in 1999, a year before the census reported Duluth’s population had increased less than 1 percent since 1990. Duluth’s civic leaders pressed on, continuing to reinvent the city’s downtown waterfront while a new generation of creative minds began laying the foundation for a cultural and craft revival that would help Duluth find a new identity.

Thanks to sisters Caroline and Julia Marshall’s Bayfront Park Development Association, the former warehouse district west of the DECC became a public gathering space, further reconnecting Duluth to the St. Louis River. Echoing Fedo, association spokesperson Donn Larson wrote that it was “no longer right for the waterfront to be our back door.” Lake Superior, he said—more than anything else—“attracts people and supports our economy.”

At the foot of Fifth Avenue West the association built the Great Lakes Aquarium (GLA), a primarily freshwater aquatic museum. After years of planning and financing, the GLA opened in July 2000, but several setbacks hindered its financial success. The city took control in 2002 and has since experimented with several management strategies.

Meanwhile, the vacant land west of the aquarium had become home to public celebrations. In 1987 it hosted the city’s first Bayfront Blues Fest, a modest gathering that grew steadily and remains a summertime staple. The site was christened Bayfront Park in 1989 and began hosting other events. The city improved the park and added a stage in 1999 using a $2 million donation by Lois Paulucci. Today Bayfront hosts festivals throughout the summer, and each holiday season it becomes home to the Bentleyville Tour of Lights.

While Bayfront was blossoming, Duluth began paying more attention to its homegrown talent. Duluth’s history includes remarkable local musicians who performed music primarily written by others: Jens Flaaten’s Third Regiment Band, his brother Gustav’s Duluth Civic Orchestra (today’s Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra), Frank Mainella’s orchestra, Joe Priley’s big band, piano virtuoso Elsa Anneke, choirs lead by Ann Colby Albright, and many others. When rock and roll took center stage, few local bands played original songs.

In 1993 Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker formed Low, known initially for its sparse, quiet sound. By the decade’s end the group enjoyed an international following and has since released over a dozen critically acclaimed albums. In the late 1990s Scott “Starfire” Lunt launched Random Radio, a pirate station featuring original local music. His thirtieth birthday party inspired the Homegrown Music Festival, which began in 1999 with ten acts playing over two nights at the historic NorShor Theatre. Between 1995 and 2004 the theater became the epicenter of Duluth’s growing original-music scene, particularly when it was under the stewardship of Rick Boo, son of former mayor Ben Boo. Eventually more Duluth acts went national, including Trampled by Turtles, Charlie Parr, and Gaelynn Lee. Local politicians began referencing the city’s “cool factor” while Homegrown kept growing; in 2019 the weeklong event featured nearly two hundred acts in dozens of venues in the Twin Ports.

As Homegrown grew, Duluthians elected native Herb Bergson mayor to replace Doty after he decided against running for a fourth term. Despite his experience as a Duluth city councilor and twice serving as mayor of Superior, Bergson struggled. His critics claimed he wasn’t prepared to manage a city nearly three times Superior’s size. His 2005 arrest for drunken driving didn’t help.

Despite public setbacks, Bergson found some success. In 2005 Northwest Airlines had abandoned its Airbus maintenance facility in Duluth—constructed as part of a state bailout package intended to create jobs in Duluth—which left taxpayers responsible for $35.9 million in bonds. The city brokered a deal to avoid the debt and took possession of the maintenance facility. The late St. Louis County commissioner Steve O’Neil, known for his tireless work helping the hungry and homeless, credited Bergson for his commitment to citizens of low and moderate income, particularly for initiating the first city plan to end homelessness in Minnesota. Bergson was also the first mayor to sign a proclamation celebrating the Duluth-Superior Pride Festival, a gesture Doty refused to make.

While Bergstrom was mayor, Duluth’s school board voted to embark on a $315 million initiative to improve and replace aging buildings, an undertaking known as the Long-Range Facilities Plan. Also called the Red Plan, the highly controversial project was completed in 2016. Bergstrom’s time as mayor ended after one term. Since 2006, its 150th year as a community, Duluth has faced recession, a historic flood, and major legal issues with the Fond du Lac Band concerning its casino in downtown Duluth. At the same time seeing a dramatic rise in its reputation for having a vibrant music and arts community, incredible outdoor resources, and ever-growing craft industries (particularly beer brewing) rise sharply. With its hospitals expanding with seemingly no end in site, Duluth’s future as the region’s major medical center is secured, and the city has quietly emerged as a center for higher education.