Published October 4th, 2002
it was over sold. Yeah, the backers had stars in their eyes. Yeah, the skeptics
saw through the pie-in-the-sky attendance projections. Yeah, the backers were
local power brokers who could pull strings behind the scenes and bulldoze the
skeptics. Yeah, its gonna cost Duluth some serious money to subsidize the Great
Lakes Aquarium this year and probably for years to come.
So what are we going to do about it? Drain the tank? Some disgruntled "I
told you so's" have suggested that the fat cats ought to dig into their
deep pockets and bail out the Aquarium. Well, here's a news bulletin, my wife
was one of the fat cats. She was also a skeptic. She finally succumbed to pleas
to contribute to the Aquarium and reluctantly ponied up some money. She's not
the biggest fish at the aquarium but she gave enough so that she was christened
a "charter member." Don't hold your breath waiting for her to make
annual contributions. By the way, I'm glad she contributed.
The current finger pointing and blame game takes me back thirty years. Back then
Duluth was a dingy, industrial town that had just lost the Morgan Park steel
plant and its 5,000 jobs. Driving through the old Bowery, one would never have
guessed that in its heyday Duluth had more millionaires per capita than any
other city in the nation. When we moved here in the 1970s the mansions on the
East end of town lay in various states of disrepair waiting for yuppies to buy
them as fixer-uppers or turn them into B&B's.
With mining in trouble a lot of people were scrambling to find something to jump
start the local economy. An Arena was built but it was mostly a public works
project since no one would have predicted today's convention economy. As the
most western point of the Great Lake's penetration into the Midwest, Duluth had
been a transportation hub. Once TIF Districts were developed some of the West
End was bulldozed to make a Transportation center. And, of course, there was
Duluth's natural landscape with Lake Superior and a crest of hills looking down
on it. Two generations earlier we had been a Mecca for hay fever sufferers.
Maybe we could make our environment work for us again. That's when the fat cats
noticed that the "me generation" had discovered skiing. There was
money to be made - if only the city would take a leap of faith.
There were skeptics then too and at first the skeptics seemed to be right. For
years the ski hill kept coming to the City Council with its hands out. There
wasn't much else the city councilors could do. They kept bailing out their
creaky investment. But the skiers kept coming and they kept spending money. The
investment was paying off. Today it's hard to remember that "Spirit
Mountain" was so named to draw in skiers to Duluth and not Native American
Could the Fish Tank follow a similar path? Probably not, unless they let
visitors jet ski around the tanks. Still, I think it's too early to write the
Aquarium's obituary. Fresh water is a precious and diminishing resource and
Minnesota has it in spades. As western states suck out the last drops from the
ancient aquifers under girding the continent they will use their burgeoning
populations to justify siphoning off Lake Superior as well. The state of fresh
water resources is precarious and Duluth and the GLA have a head start in
telling this story.
As I looked up information on Africa's Lake Victoria for this column, I ran
across the GLA's website. It was the first one I found which described the
recent extinctions of hundreds of cichlid fish species since the introduction of
Nile Perch to Victoria. Anyone who lived through Duluth's smelt boom of the
Seventies and its subsequent crash can appreciate the power of invasive species
to alter a lake's environment. This is the kind of story that the GLA is
perfectly designed to tell.
Duluth already has one of the foremost fresh water labs in the nation. It
doesn't take much of a stretch to imagine the study of fresh water joining
tourism and the aviation industry as a bulwark of the local economy.
I can't quite imagine the GLA ever becoming more than a bit player in the
tourism market as an aquatic zoo. Unfortunately, there just aren't that many
fresh water sharks, sea horses, or octopi. Still, I remember the genesis of the
Aquarium during the heady days at the end of the Cold War. Duluth had a sister
city in Russia, Petrozavodsk, and there was talk of a joint US/Soviet study of
Lake Superior and Russia's Lake Baikal. If we ever go back to the drawing boards
we ought to remember that original inspiration.
Just one more thing. I haven't been to the GLA in over a year now. Someone
please tell me. Do they still have that curtain of dead fish and stuffed deer
hanging from the ceiling?
AFSCME, the public employee's union, has just endorsed Green Party Candidate
Kris Osbakken for St. Louis County Commissioner as well as DFLer Peg Sweeney who
fought against the "one man one vote" redistricting so she wouldn't
have to run for reelection. For her part, Osbakken is a devoted
environmentalist. Her lawn is as infamous along Glendale Street for its spring
green as my house is for its winter white. A chest high tangle of nondescript
vegetation hides her house and is explained by a weathered plastic sign from the
"Green Thumb Project." It boasts that the lawn is "pesticide
free" and sports the slogan, "Great Lakes - Great Lawns."
It's a comfort to learn that all it takes to be a good environmentalist is to
avoid yard work.
Welty is a small time politician who lets it all hang out at www.snowbizz.com
Read a News Trib story about the Aquarium