Redevelopment: Duluth’s situational advantage and industrial decline

From its first European settlement through the Second World War, Duluth’s success had always stemmed from its situation as the westernmost point of the United States with a direct aquatic connection to the Atlantic Ocean. Its
proximity to several large and prosperous mines and a successful timber industry had further allowed Duluth to exploit its location as a break-in-bulk point, where supplies could be collected and shipped eastward. U.S. Steel, the largest company in Duluth, is a perfect example of Duluth’s advantageous situation: iron could be converted to steel very close to where it was mined—at the iron range in northern Minnesota—and shipped from the point at which it was processed to locations as far as Europe.

“Then and Now.” Duluth News Tribune, Nov. 24, 2003.

Duluth’s reliance on its smokestack industries was indeed a gift to the city for decades, but as the country began to de-industrialize and outsource in the sixties and early seventies, this industrial reliance became its downfall. When U.S. Steel began to phase out its operations in Duluth in 1971, the city was especially devastated, as the departure of such a critical part of the city’s economy (which was completed in 1975) had an enormous economic impact. Not only were the thousands of employees of the companyput out of work, but the dozens of companies that did business with the steel mill also suffered losses and were forced to follow its lead out of the city.

 

Bishop, Hugh.“ Duluth’s Canal Park.” Lake Superior Magazine, June/July 2004, p. 20.

Unemployment shot up to fifteen percent, causing downtown stores to lose business and oftentimes to close as well. As more and more companies of Duluth either located in other cities and countries or closed for good, the city seemed helpless in the face of such an exodus, placing a billboard along I-35 that read: “Will the last person leaving town turn off the lights.” Interestingly enough, the stagnation and resignation that was expressed by the city to its population on a sign along the interstate highway would be relieved by way of the construction of this same road.