Not Eudora   By Harry Welty
Published October 4th, 2002


Yeah, 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 shamans.

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 Brouhaha