A couple of decades ago, no one would have put Duluth on a list of America’s best towns, let alone at the top of the list. Located 150 miles north of Minneapolis, on the shores of Lake Superior in northeastern Minnesota, Duluth was a dying Rust Belt city with a collapsing economic base and an unemployment rate of 15 percent.
Since then, however, the city has turned things around. This fall, readers of Outside magazine selected Duluth as America’s “Best Town Ever,” beating out such stalwarts as Boulder, Missoula, Mont., and Burlington, Vt.
That’s quite an honor, particularly for a city with Duluth’s less-than-tropical climate. Last winter, Duluth residents enjoyed (if that’s the word) 23 days of below-zero temperatures.
Despite all that, the city of 86,000 — but with a metropolitan area of 280,000 residents (ranking 166th nationally, with Boulder at 160th and Greeley at 173rd) — has re-oriented itself around participatory sports, tourism and health care. The unemployment rate has dropped to 4.3 percent, and Duluth has become a magnet for young professionals.
Thanks to 100 miles of challenging single-track mountain bike trails within the city limits, Duluth has become a destination for mountain bikers. The trails, constructed in the hills around Duluth, initially were received with skepticism.
Mountain biking trails in a city with no mountains? But things have worked out, according to a recent article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
“I can’t tell you how many people said mountain biking [tourism] will never come to Duluth,” said Hansi Johnson, the city’s mountain biking czar. “Now we have mountain biking magazines coming here.”
In a recent interview with Bicycling Magazine, 40-year-old Duluth Mayor Don Ness talked about Duluth’s revival.
“Most cities put a premium on making life easy,” said Ness. “Cities like Duluth put a premium on making life interesting. It’s not for everyone; it will never be an American standard. But I think a lot of people are looking for that.”
That’s what I was looking for in 1981 when my then-spouse and I moved back to my hometown after a 20-year absence. Fleeing the chaos and crime of Miami, we sought stability, safety, good schools, economic opportunity and adventure.
Colorado Springs was small, open and welcoming. New arrivals brought new ideas — and both were embraced.
“I remember when I moved here in 1984,” said Les Gruen of Urban Strategies, who represents Colorado Springs on the state Transportation Commission. “There were thousands of people like me, professionals in their 30s who had come here to work, start businesses, raise their families. It was so accessible to newcomers — you could always find a place at the table, a way to participate in the community.”
Young men and women still come to Colorado Springs, but the city has changed. We might once have been expansive and optimistic, but no more. The 30-somethings have become 60- and 70-somethings — and many of us are not stepping gracefully aside.
We’re not a youthful city. We’re an open-air senior center, demographically tilted to the Silver Sneakers set. One telling statistic: Among 3,500 American cities, Colorado Springs ranks 20th in military retirees. We’re one of two cities in the top 20 with fewer than 1 million inhabitants, and the only one with fewer than 500,000.
Geezers tend to be cautious, risk averse and inwardly focused. I know because I am one. We don’t look over our shoulder to see if anyone’s gaining on us, or look forward to new destinations. We look straight down so we won’t trip.
But we still want to run things. That’s why Keith King runs City Council, Terry Storm runs the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors, Dick Celeste runs the Olympic Museum, Bill Hybl runs El Pomar and Steve Bach runs the city.
A city that makes things interesting for its residents is one that offers newcomers a sense of ownership, possibility and growth. We no longer do so; in fact, new arrivals may find themselves infected by our own weary pessimism.
“The clock is ticking,” said one reasonably successful young professional. “I love it here, my family loves it here, but I have to make a living. We’re just so stuck in this town — there’s so much negativity.”
What can we do? Nothing much — the geezers aren’t going anywhere, so you young ’uns will have to wait until we die off. Maybe I’ll move to Duluth, but I probably wouldn’t like it. Too cold, too hip, and the young people run things.
They wouldn’t be interested in my vast wisdom.