Q&A Spotlight: Duluth Mayor Reflects

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Duluth Mayor

Richard Narum (photo); Chris Monroe (art)

At the polls today, residents of Duluth, Minnesota, will elect a new mayor to succeed Don Ness. Ness is stepping down after two four-year terms; he ran unopposed in 2011. According to Minnesota Public Radio, “Ness is credited with helping place Duluth on firmer financial ground…and transforming its image from a struggling industrial town to an outdoor tourist mecca.” In a 2014 survey, Duluthians gave him an 89% job approval rating.

We asked Mayor Ness about performing arts in his personal background and his city.

YPP: What’s your personal history in the performing arts?

Ness: I credit the performing arts for grounding me in Duluth. After growing up here, I reached my early 20s and was questioning whether I wanted to stay or move. I fell back in love with Duluth because of the music, arts and theatre scene. My brother Jamie is a musician and he played music for 20 years. I was more of a fan, somebody who loved live music shows and wanted to add value in some way.

I found my own place in this supportive, talented arts community first by writing comedy skits. And while I lacked any musical talent, I knew I was good at is running organizations and the financial aspect. I became involved in Duluth’s Homegrown Music Festival, which was started in the late 1990s by Scott Lunt, a local radio DJ and music supporter. Its goal was to highlight and celebrate local acts doing original live music.

I realized I could use my experience and connections in the business community to help create a financial model for the festival that would support these artists and celebrate their accomplishments.

This festival started out on two nights with 10 bands and one venue. It’s grown and evolved – it’s now eight days with more than 200 acts at 35 different venues. We also started bringing in poetry, photography and video. The festival is rooted in folks with a connection to Duluth. Everyone is treated on equal footing; whether you’re a high school punk band or Trampled by Turtles, you get $50 for performing.

This festival really embodies Duluth’s do-it-yourself nature. We’re not holding a festival to bring in acts from the outside. Our biggest festival celebrates local talent.

YPP: How can city governments support the performing arts?

Ness: It really depends on a city’s capacity. Larger cities have more budgetary and staff capacity. In a city our size [population: 86,000] with the budgetary challenges we have, we find other ways to be supportive, such as promoting events and attracting visitors.

For example, we encourage local artists to use our Bayfront Festival Park and we also encourage national touring acts who play there to hire local artists as opening acts. When it opened in 2001, this park was a commitment by this community to host larger festival-type events, with capacity up to 20,000 people. Its location highlights our support of the arts and our unique surroundings on Lake Superior. The combination is pretty cool.

We also support other performance venues, including the historic Duluth Depot train station and NorShor Theatre, which will undergo restoration soon.

YPP: How do the performing arts support Duluth’s revitalization?

Ness: It’s a key part of what we’re trying to accomplish here. We first needed to ask, ‘What is our city’s reputation?’ In the past, I think Duluth felt badly we weren’t matching regional centers like Fargo, North Dakota, or Rochester, Minnesota, with their economic success driven by suburban growth. In the last five or ten years, Duluth has really honed in on our message and identity – what we project to the world.

Natural beauty and recreation is at the core of that, but the next circle encompasses the arts, culture and music, along with our entrepreneurial spirit and a progressive world view. All these attributes have given Duluth a niche in the Upper Midwest, much like Bend, Oregon, and Asheville, North Carolina, enjoy in their regions.

Today Duluth is a smaller regional center with a very strong sense of place and do-it-yourself ethos that I believe is especially different in the performing arts. When you’re a city like Duluth – one step removed from the national touring circuit – you need to create it yourself. Down in the Twin Cities, they have a great music scene that’s one of the best in the nation. There’s a large critical mass that draws talented and creative people. They also have a steady stream of national acts coming through.

In Duluth, instead of grumbling about national acts bypassing us, we decided to support and lift up our own local talent, like through our Homegrown Music Festival. And now there are musicians like Low, Trampled by Turtles, Charlie Parr and others who call Duluth home but tour widely.

[Photo credit for Don Ness @ Homegrown Music Festival: Hansi Johnson.]

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