This is an edited re-posting of the author’s article, “Reader’s View: Please fix the sidewalk at Fitger’s” that was published in the July 1, 2023 Duluth News Tribune.
My hometown of Duluth, Minnesota is a popular tourist destination. With many current and future attractions, along with the now fully funded Northern Lights Express opening in four or five years, tourism will only increase.
Passable sidewalks are one of many critical investments that will be necessary to keep up with the mobility demands of residents and visitors. By encouraging locals and tourists to use public transportation and non-motorized transport, Duluth can enjoy expanded commerce and tax revenue without dramatically increasing its infrastructure maintenance liabilities. Duluth’s city government has already invested millions of dollars into multi-modal infrastructure: They’ve built bike lanes, off-street trails as well as pedestrian and human powered mobility infrastructure. You can check out the Duluth Parks & Recreation website to see the current and proposed trails for yourself.
But as the city looks forward to new projects and new visitors, it must not lose sight of its responsibility for maintaining what’s already here. Every city has sidewalks in need of repair and not enough budgetary dollars to fix them, so when they do come up with the money to fix a sidewalk, they need to do it right. And while this imperative should be the number one rule for city-sponsored projects, it is just as important for sidewalks maintained by private businesses that rely on local patrons.
What I Discovered While Walking to Super One
Early one rainy and foggy morning, I had no milk for my breakfast cereal. Years ago, there was a convenience store in my downtown apartment, along with two more small stores a few minutes’ walk from my home. As these stores have closed, I have needed to walk east to the Super One located within the Duluth Plaza shopping center.
While walking east on Superior Street (Duluth’s main street) to the Plaza Super One Foods, I had to walk around an impressive puddle blocking the sidewalk at the Fitger’s Mall. Popular with residents and tourists alike, Fitger’s Mall has 21 restaurants and shops, along with a microbrewery and hotel. One of these restaurants is the Fitger’s Brewhouse that has a summertime patio on the Superior Street sidewalk. During the summer months, patrons can enjoy their food and drink under the Tito’s umbrellas, and pedestrians sacrifice the ease of using that section of pavement to get around. Life is full of trade offs, and this one seems fair. Until it rains.
When it rains, the Superior Street sidewalk in front of the Fitger’s Mall becomes impassable for many. Pedestrians, electric scooter riders, people pushing baby strollers and wheelchair users whose feet are close to the ground, are forced to walk or drive through a wide puddle and then use a muddy trail, or they can walk on the Fitger’s driveway to return to the sidewalk. A flooded sidewalk makes human powered mobility difficult at best and dangerous at worst.
A Tale of Two Sidewalk Café Bypasses
On my same walk, I noticed that the Italian café, Va Bene, which literally translates as “goes well,” east of the Fitger’s Mall also created a summertime outdoor patio. But, Va Bene extended their sidewalk, allowing people to bypass the outdoor tables. No dirty foot paths. No flooded pavement. Just al fresco dinners and neighbors on the move.
Back at Fitger’s Brewhouse, though, the mall’s management has taken a different approach to addressing the problem of accessing the sidewalk café. They decided to “fix” it. Let’s just say I find their solution questionable.
Now, only a very narrow sidewalk leads to the fenced-off summertime sidewalk café. It’s different, but is it really any better? I have my doubts.
I got an email from Cindy Voigt, who works for the City of Duluth, Public Works & Utilities. Fitger’s owner Scott Vesterstein sent her a message on July 12, 2023 saying, “Please let the reporter know we have completed repairs.” The Fitger’s management “solved the sidewalk puddle problem” by cutting a narrow wedge in the curb. I wonder how long it will be before this wedge is filled with dirt, mud and garbage.
As frustrating as both the dysfunctional sidewalk problem and its questionable solution can be, not even marginal improvements are likely without residents raising the issue. When you come across these problems, report it to your community public works department, local newspaper and Streets.mn. Perhaps with enough public attention, real repairs will happen.