David's Blog

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Perspective on Duluth’s Population

In 1960, the population of our beloved Emerald City on the Hill’s population peaked at 106,884, and our city’s future looked bright. A thriving port city, Duluth was still riding on a post-war manufacturing high.

Fast forward to July 2009. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that Duluth’s population declined by 2,634 people between the years 2000 and 2008 – to a population of 84,284. Can a community lose 22,600 members (21%) within 48 years and still remain vibrant? Can we do something to reverse our population’s downward spiral? Does our beloved community’s future still look bright?

Each of us has his own perspective on the situation. Nevertheless, the recent census figures vividly illustrate that we cannot achieve the goal voiced by many Duluthians to “keep Duluth just the way it is.” Communities either grow or decline; it is impossible to maintain a community in a static condition. Attempts to “keep Duluth just the way it is” will only end in frustration.

My strong conviction is that no community can shrink to greatness. Declining numbers lead to under-funded and under-utilized school systems and to oversized municipalities which demand each taxpayer pay an ever larger share of the bill for government. It means fewer opportunities for young people and less investment in community services. A declining city population inevitably loses political clout in the State Legislature and Congress.

My friend, Tony Barrett, Ph.D., professor of economics at the College of St. Scholastica, shared in a Chamber publication his view of why people promoting economic development in Duluth are often frustrated by opposition. He points out that developers may fail to realize that large numbers of Duluthians simply do not want growth. Dr. Barrett identifies this “no growth” bloc of voters as: 1) older citizens who believe expansion will raise taxes; 2) native Duluthians who have remained in Duluth because they like the status quo; 3) people who choose to live here because they like the environment; and 4) business people who wish to avoid further competition.

Barrett admits these are generalizations. However, they offer a rationale for the intense scrutiny and frequent objections to which we subject many economic development projects. Ironically, it will be the jobs created by these often bitterly opposed development proposals that will be the catalysts for the reversal of our population decline. It is these development projects that infuse our community with private investment, funding for our city services, such as police and fire protection, and employment options for members of our workforce.

The challenge of population decline warrants lively debate. It constitutes a pressing issue that should be publicly aired in the media, in neighborhood associations, within City Hall, in political discussions, and at the dinner table. Our children’s future in Duluth depends on our response to the issue. College students and young talent have a special interest in the discussion.

The Duluth Area Chamber’s leadership is actively engaged in the dialogue. I am confident that within our community and within ourselves, we will find the answers and the motivation to strengthen this city we all cherish.

posted by David Ross at

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