Part 1: Downtown Duluth — What’s Next?

DULUTH, Minn. – Major changes are beginning to unfold in downtown Duluth as investors and city leaders work to keep the area progressive. In Part 1 of a special report, FOX 21’s Dan Hanger takes a look at the changing retail industry downtown as the buyer habits of consumers continue to shift online.

There’s no denying downtown Duluth is on the up and up these days.

“There’s people looking at the downtown and really keeping an eye on all of the activity that’s been happening — seeing the growth,” explained Kristi Stokes, president of the Greater Downtown Council.

The historic NorShor Theatre is getting a multi-million dollar makeover with an opening date for early 2018.

Developers have proposed market-rate apartments for the 100 block of East First Street.

And the city of Duluth is searching for more housing to take over the old Kozy property down the block on East First Street.

“The more people you have down here, the healthy it is for everyone. Whether it’s more eyes and ears on the streets, more activity taking place, more demand for services, and for retails, and for restaurants,” Stokes explained.

Stokes believes the housing and growing Historic Arts and Theater District – where the NorShore is located – are building blocks for a successful future.

“We’ve got a jewel of a lake. So we are so well positioned to be one of the premiere mid-sized central business districts in the country,” Stokes said.

But these changing times don’t come without challenges for others, like the struggling retail industry.

“Nationally we’ve seen changes, too. I mean, obviously, retail has changed in a lot of downtowns,” Stokes said.

“There’s nothing down here anymore. And to bring businesses back, we need the small retail shops to open up,” said Catherine Miller, owner of A Time Treasured Antiques on West Superior Street.

Miller believes small retail with a niche can survive in numbers.

“The only people who are here are office workers. Ya know, bring back the people. This place is going to be empty if we don’t get retail down here,” Miller explained.

Miller is originally from Ireland and describes the community there in hopes of a similar version here.

“I can walk out of my house, walk around the corner, go to the butcher shop, the grocery shop, the paper shop, get my hair done – anything — just right there within walking distance,” Miller said.

Meanwhile, next door, Rod Saline, the longtime owner of the Engwall’s Flower and Garden Center brand, says times have simply changed with the consumer in the driver seat.

“Part of the challenge is trying to find that balance of how much brick and mortar do we need to display, what it is we are proud to do and what can be done online, what can be over the phone,” Saline said.

Saline has owned Engwall’s since 1987.  He believes a strong brand has kept his business relent, along with the heavy investment in online commerce, which now adds up to 22 percent of his yearly sales.

“I think the online piece is significant because as consumers — when we have an idea — we can go online and get some immediate information on all kinds of ideas,” Saline said.

And while only shopping and e-commerce are showing no signs of slowing down, there’s a growing these among business owners and city leaders to shop local, support local or lost the fabric of what makes a city thrive for generations to come.

“We have to make sure that our community and our visitors continue to support them or you won’t have those brick and mortar businesses here,” Stokes said.

“It will never come back once everything’s gone. You’re dead,” Miller said.

“To the extent that one can, to always think about buying local and being support of those local independent business and the people that work in those businesses,” Saline said.