Summer in the City

And the news is hot. Kind of like our real estate market, which is causing some unhappiness up yonder.

Deeper problems lie within the rental market, however, as Duluthians of all income levels are often stuck paying too much, searching too long or settling too fast for a limited supply of often lower-quality rentals.

Don’t get too down on Duluth, though — just take a look at the coffee culture we’re brewing, or the incredible spirit of our entrepreneurs, or these big power plant plans coming from the electric utility.

Then there are plans that should have been laid more carefully, like those that led to the desecration of Fond du Lac graves.

My continuing coverage of the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline has included the requisite public hearing, a scoop out of financial statements and a profile of a local company that stands to benefit if the massive project is approved by the state. More to come on that front, of course.

Finally, I’m pleased to share I took first place in the Minnesota SPJ Best Beat Reporting category after submitting the manufacturing series I wrote last fall. Just grateful I get to tell these stories at all.

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The Winter of this Content

The text from my former Columbian colleague and fellow University of Montana alum came as I was driving to Ashland, Wis., on Wednesday.

Oil Town took top prize in SPJ’s comprehensive coverage category.”

It came as quite a pleasant surprise, given the fierce competition among similar-sized outlets in the Pacific Northwest, that Dameon Pesanti and I would top the category. I’m grateful, honored and humbled. Thank you, and here’s to everyone else who placed and continues to fight the good fight.

Back on this side of the Cascades (and the Rockies (and the Mississippi)), there’s plenty of fights to cover, whether it’s the multimillion-dollar (and shrinking) Paulucci estate or the next new pipeline proposed by Enbridge that will cross Minnesota. And then there’s the fight that finally fizzled out: Sunday liquor sales.

Of course there’s the sunnier stuff, like this new solar farm or the cutting-edge work of a biotech company in Two Harbors.

Some of my favorite — and most-lauded — pieces of late were analyses on NAFTA’s impact on Minnesota and the health care economy in Duluth, a short series I worked on with health care reporter John Lundy. I also enjoyed writing this profile on Duluth’s homegrown, billion-dollar company, Allete.

And though I was fighting a cold, who could pass up the opportunity to cover the biggest dogsled race in the Lower 48?

Looking back on the Oil Town series, it’s crazy to think where I was not even a year ago. But I”m still sitting through long port meetings, so not everything has changed.

Full Press

It’s been a few months since I joined the Duluth News Tribune, and already I’ve built a cache of work I’m proud of.

One of the biggest and most difficult pieces of my tenure came in December. It starts like this:

There aren’t “whites only” signs in the windows, but some job seekers in Duluth say it sure seems that way.

“Because I am of black, African-American descent, it is not as easy to get into the medical industry even with all the experience I have,” said Erikka Thornton, who has been licensed in her field for nearly 20 years. “I live in a town where there are racists. It needs to be discussed. It’s not a secret.”

Indeed, the unemployment rate among Duluth’s minorities is staggering, even as jobs go unfilled and employers complain of a lack of applicants. This won’t be the last I’ll be writing about that.

Meanwhile, in a case of I-read-SEC-filings-so-you-don’t-have-to, I find Enbridge getting cautious about buying a stake in the Dakota Access pipeline. The massive pipeline company has a terminal in Superior, Wis., and as such will find its name in the News Tribune from time to time.

On a lighter note, Cirrus Aircraft delivered its first jet and opened a big new expansion at its Duluth headquarters.

Joe Whisenhunt, the first owner of a Cirrus Vision Jet, helps family members from the plane at Monday’s event to mark the delivery and the opening of Cirrus’ finishing center. Photo by Steve Kuchera.
Joe Whisenhunt, the first owner of a Cirrus Vision Jet, helps family members from the plane at Monday’s event to mark the delivery and the opening of Cirrus’ finishing center. Photo by Steve Kuchera.

Business is soaring at Cirrus, sure, but the needle is scratching at the end of the record at Vinyl Cave in Superior. It is a good time of year to be in fitness, however, and the lake culture business is booming.

Tl;dr? Just take a look at my 2017 economic outlook for the area.

Do be sure to check out my reporting on the rebirth of an infamous building through beer, a hard look at health insurance for business, the business and labor spending on the region’s political races and a visit, the day before the election, of Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

Finally, a big thank you to everyone I met at the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University. I was a fellow at the Reynolds Week to start the year and learned a great deal among the company of great journalists and educators. Cheers, all!

Nice to Meet You, Home

Duluth and I are becoming fast friends, and it’s a very give and take relationship: I take in the bountiful natural beauty, friendly people and lakeside culture, and Duluth gets a rapidfire business reporter at a strong paper at a time when it’s needed most, a time of change and possibility in the Northland.

It’s those kinds of overarching themes I bring to my coverage, whether it be through a solely social-media based kombucha business, a far-out plan for a nonprofit restaurant in a residential neighborhood or the first changing of the guard at the area’s 46-year-old co-op.

I’ve already launched a series on manufacturing in the area that shows both the promise and pitfalls of changes in the industry. (The story may have contributed to the city’s decision to cap a fee set to hurt the local papermaker, Verso.)

Sparks fly as A.J. Herder  and Randy Sistad, both fabricator / welders at TriTec, use grinders to fix a water tank used in the Highway 53 bridge project near Virginia on Tuesday. Photo by Bob King.
Sparks fly as A.J. Herder and Randy Sistad, both fabricator / welders at TriTec, use grinders to fix a water tank used in the Highway 53 bridge project near Virginia on Tuesday. Photo by Bob King.

Then there’s changes for the worse, like the sudden closure of Regency Beauty Institute that left dozens of students scrambling.

In changes at the paper, I invented a column for our Monday business section called The Memo. I think it’s gotten sharper every week.

Oh, and don’t let me forget to share the great opportunity I had covering Bernie Sanders’ visit to Duluth.

All in a month and a half’s work, though there’s always room for improvement. Let’s see what comes next, eh?

Onward, again

My byline is moving across the country.

On Aug. 29, I start my new job as the business reporter at the Duluth News Tribune, ending the eight-year chapter of my life spent in the West and starting the next stretch of discovering, writing and root-setting. So many people made this possible, and it’s impossible to list them all. Thank you to all the family, friends, editors, professors, colleagues, sources and strangers that led me to this incredible opportunity. I’m ready for What’s Next.

In the meantime, I’ve stayed busy here at The Columbian. A few highlights:

Our Oil Town series continued with a closer look at the jobs Vancouver Energy is promising at its proposed oil-by-rail terminal at the Port of Vancouver.

A story I wrote about an elderly landlady’s struggle with Comcast prompted the state Attorney General’s Office to lend her a hand.

Nearly 20 years since being annexed into the city and doubling Vancouver’s population, I profiled the character, growth and vision of east Vancouver.

I also got to peak inside the expanded HP Inc. campus where the company’s CTO unveiled the “next industrial revolution,” 3-D printing.

Then there were a few fun stories in a bitcoin ATM at Vancouver Mall, a crackdown on signature-gatherers at WinCo and, a perennial favorite, another brewery coming to Vancouver.

My pal Dameon went to the final day of adjudication for the Vancouver Energy terminal, and I edited the story he wrote that leaves us waiting — how many more months until we get a decision from the state board and ultimately the governor on the project? Though I won’t be writing about it, you know I’ll be watching.

Looking through old posts — jeez, nostalgic already? — I realized I never shared my story about Dean Yankee, who runs a garage sale “no one else wanted to have.” I took a chance writing this largely in the second person but I think it was the best way to capture the scene and his personality.

My next transmission will come from the shores of Lake Superior. Until then, remember to support local journalism, folks.

Context clues

There’s a common storytelling trick called starting in the middle. But for The Columbian’s recently launched Oil Town series, I started before the beginning.

In March I took a look back at the state energy panel overseeing the permitting for the nation’s largest oil terminal, that controversial lil’ proposal at the the Port of Vancouver. Next, my colleague (and former Montana classmate) Dameon Pesanti looked at a little-known assistant attorney general known as the Counsel for the Environment. Most recently, I delved into the economics of the oil-by-rail terminal to see if the three-year-old proposal is still viable.

I suppose none of that sounds incredibly enticing, but one reader called me after the latest story and said “it was like reading The New York Times.” A tear slid down my cheek.

Some tears were shed over port CEO Todd Coleman’s sudden and oddly timed departure recently. I took a look back at his four-year, 19-day tenure for Sunday’s business cover.

The week before I learned Vancouver’s Great Western Malting Co. has had a big role in the craft beer boom, and the microbrew industry is in turn helping the massive waterfront malthouse grow.

A Trap Door Brewing IPA, made with Great Western Malting Co. malts, sits in an old Great Western glass. The father and grandfather of the uptown Vancouver brewery worked at the malthouse, which supplies many Northwest breweries with grain.
A Trap Door Brewing IPA, made with Great Western Malting Co. malts, sits in an old Great Western glass. The father and grandfather of the uptown Vancouver brewery worked at the malthouse, which supplies many Northwest breweries with grain. Photo by Ariane Kunze.

It’s been a busy spring all over, with stories about a food truck putting down roots, a huge new development in an old rock quarry and a nascent co-working space opening in downtown Vancouver.

And back at the port, I chased them on not releasing the publicly approved lease amendment for the oil terminal, chastised them on a potential open meetings violation and celebrated with them on news of a boutique hotel coming to the waterfront. Always something with these guys.

Clickbait for the mildly concerned

Whether you want that oil terminal at the Port of Vancouver buried or built tomorrow, it was an exciting week.

First, we find out the companies behind the terminal are looking for some changes to their lease. Then the port’s staff comes out against it. Tuesday sees a daylong public hearing on the lease amendment (for which an editor told me I took home the Iron Ass Award). And on Friday, the port’s three commissioners could throw the three-year process to build the country’s largest oil-by-rail terminal into question.

Neat, huh?

Many readers are of course more interested in results, not the process (I’m a fan of both). So when something started happening at the port’s waterfront property, they took notice.

The old waterfront restaurant at the shuttered Red Lion hotel in Vancouver already looks miles different as a well-known local restrauteur prepares his new throwback vision for the upcoming Warehouse '23. Photo by Natalie Behring.
The old waterfront restaurant at the shuttered Red Lion hotel in Vancouver already looks miles different as a well-known local restrauteur prepares his new throwback vision for the upcoming Warehouse ’23. Photo by Natalie Behring.

I try not to write solely about the port — there is so much more to the economy of Vancouver and Clark County — but potential open meetings law violations are nothing to ignore.

Other recent stories include a look at the tepid recovery of manufacturing jobs, the 25-year-rise of Betsy Henning and how so few of Washington state’s big energy projects have escaped the permitting process alive.

And of course, don’t miss my column about malls, where I channel my childhood, Joan Didion and Taylor Swift.

Stay tuned for more, soon. The news never stops, and neither will I.