New year, new me

Well, new job title.

Jana Hollingsworth and I now comprise the Duluth News Tribune’s investigative reporting team, and I can’t thank my editors enough for the opportunity to focus on the biggest and best stories our readers deserve.

Right to it then —

It’s no secret that good day care is increasingly hard to come by, in Minnesota or elsewhere. But the reason so many providers are leaving the business? Cindy Giuliani decided to take a stand by contacting me and telling of a hostile work environment between licensors and providers, offering a window into a profession rarely seen as such.

For this story written by Peter Passi I contributed some data handiwork that also led to an interactive map. Nearly $149 million could be locked up in special tax districts in Duluth over the next few decades, starving county, city and school coffers of much-needed revenue. But could those taxpaying developments exist if not for this incentive?

My first story of 2018 was on the Year of the Woman, a local look at the national echo of 1992, and the top story of 2017 was our chasing of the Enbridge Line 3 replacement pipeline debate.

Though it wasn’t my job title until recently, I certainly took an investigative approach to my work on the business beat, as seen in this piece on a golf course fallen on hard times or a look at what local elected officials (should?) make.

An employee climbs up to the cockpit of a crane at the IPS Crane shop in Duluth Tuesday afternoon. IPS Cranes rebuilds railroad cranes from the ground up at its Duluth facility. (Clint Austin /

On the more business-y side of things, I wrote about the fierce digital embrace and defense of brick-and-mortar happening at Maurices, a local locomotive crane shop, some rare new housing in Duluth and a look at exactly what five people must consider when deciding whether to approve or deny Line 3.

And then apparently people my age (I’m still young, right?) are managing financial planning offices. One of my best profiles to date.

Oh, and I got to write about soccer. Go Loons.


I Need Aviator Sunglasses

Photo by Steve Kuchera

…with all the aviation I get to write about — and experience. Last week I took a ride on a Cirrus Vision jet, the Duluth company’s long-awaited addition to its fleet that has been heading to customers since December.. Here’s a personal take on the ride (with a video I shot) and what it all means for our booming regional aviation sector.

I also broke the news on AAR Corp. getting a new airliner to service in its hangar here — multiple sources say it’s United, but the companies won’t confirm. It’s United, though, yeah.

Back on the ground I took a look at why big retailers are sticking with Duluth, how Cloquet’s pulp and paper mill is thriving in the face of industrywide decline, local labor’s uphill battle, how to put the success in business succession and, of course, more news on the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline.

I’ve also spent some time on campus lately, writing about changes at UMD’s student media outlet and even talking to one of John Hatcher’s classes about, well, what I do. Professor Brooks in training, eh? I also went after the youth vote with a column in our back-to-school section and a look at what to do in the long, ever-approaching winter. It’s nice to break out of the inverted pyramid sometimes.

Finally, a few weeks ago, while working a Sunday shift, I had to write the story you never hope to read or write — a vibrant local 15-year-old, Will Schlotec, jumped into a storm-roiled river and died. I called around the next day to see what can be done to prevent another such tragedy, and hopefully we can.

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.


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.