The lights are on in Duluth

(PHOTO: snapshot via former Duluth Mayor John Fedo, as it appeared in the Duluth News Tribune)

In 1982, this billboard appeared on I-35 and was taken down after just two hours due to complaints. It did, however, epitomize the attitude of the city at the time experiencing one of its worst-ever economic downturns, and stands in stark contrast to Duluth’s economic status today. (PHOTO: snapshot via former Duluth Mayor John Fedo, as it appeared in the Duluth News Tribune)

This piece in the Duluth News Tribune shared a fascinating find: photographic evidence of one of Northern Minnesota’s most iconic folk legends from the economic collapse of the early 1980s. As the story goes, shown to be true in the above snapshot, someone put up a billboard up on I-35 that year imploring “would the last one leaving Duluth please turn out the light?”

You have the scene: The national recession and collapse of the domestic steel industry took a huge toll on Duluth and the Iron Range. Duluth had lost its steel mill, and was in the process of losing all manner of manufacturing and shipping jobs back then. This moment was make or break for the city, and fortunately for Northern Minnesota the city figured out a way forward. Namely, the development and beautification of the waterfront became Duluth’s central calling card for a new century. Instead of doubling down on the industries that shrunk, Duluth opened its minds to other ideas.

That’s one reason why the state Department of Employment and Economic Development is releasing new numbers showing the lowest unemployment rate in Duluth since 2006, when the last boom peaked. 4.3 percent.

As was exhaustively discussed a month ago, Iron Range unemployment is higher than the state average. This has been a steady talking point in the current campaign for most state offices. But August showed marked improvement in all Iron Range regions, including a rate of improvement in Hibbing that was even stronger than Duluth’s. Looking back at Bill Hanna’s politically-motivated conniption over Range unemployment last month, we can see that, contrary to that diatribe, the Range is indeed tied to regional economic factors and the only thing preventing the Iron Range from enjoying even lower unemployment is a lack of economic diversity.

This lights are on in Duluth, but we aren’t out of the woods. Let wisdom and vision light the way — both in Duluth, and points north.

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