Ten years ago, there was broad public consensus in Tower on the future of the city’s harbor zone. As we reported two weeks ago, that original vision for the harbor was the culmination of …
Ten years ago, there was broad public consensus in Tower on the future of the city’s harbor zone. As we reported two weeks ago, that original vision for the harbor was the culmination of considerable community input, both from a broad-based harbor committee, as well as from the general public, which was able to weigh in during open house events that the city held to take input on the direction of the plan.
Most residents indicated they wanted to see a mixed development, with both traffic-generating retail businesses as well as housing. They also wanted to see a clear connection between the harbor and the city’s downtown, located three blocks away. Those elements should continue to be part of whatever plan ultimately comes to fruition at the harbor.
There have been some in the community who have pushed what is essentially a “do-nothing” approach to the harbor. They complain that the city has already invested a lot on the harbor (which is true) and that city officials should simply abandon hopes for development there in favor of minor amenities, like a pavilion and picnic tables.
While there certainly may be the possibility for some green space at the harbor, to throw in the towel at the exact point that development is actually in a position to happen, is reckless and self-defeating for the community. The lack of progress at the harbor over the past decade-plus, isn’t due to lack of interest from developers— it’s the result of a project that was clearly not ready for prime time. When the city first issued an RFP, before the dredging of the harbor, developers said they needed to see an actual harbor, not the promise of one. Other developers requested market studies, both for a hotel and a mixed commercial-residential development before moving ahead. Those studies are still of interest to prospective developers.
The city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on engineering and soil testing at the site. And most importantly, the city spent three years developing a plat and addressing a laundry list of restrictions and other deed limitations that had muddied the land title in much of the harbor zone. Developers couldn’t have advanced a project until these pieces were in place, no matter how much they might have wanted to do so.
And now that the city, finally, has the key in the ignition, we should throw in the towel and put up a pavilion? Such suggestions ignore the fact that other funding agencies, including the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, have made significant investment in the harbor as well— on the city’s promise that it would vigorously pursue economic development there. Tower would be hard pressed to ask for future funds from the IRRR, or other funding agencies, if it backed out of those promises now. What’s more, the city of Tower needs to show that it can be a trustworthy partner in economic development, both with public funders and private investors, if it has any hope of a sustainable future.
There’s no doubt that the money the city has spent on the harbor over the past several years has contributed to its financial constraints. The way to address that concern is to move forward with a worthwhile development that allows the city to recoup its investment in added tax base, new housing, new employment, and an improved business climate.
The city clearly made false starts and took some wrong turns along the way. Much of that can be chalked up to inexperience and a lack of vision by some prior city officials. The three-person harbor committee that drove the project from 2014 until it disbanded in 2018 failed to follow through on the community’s original vision. They made a wrong turn with a prospective hotel development, then turned around and pushed for high-end town homes with no associated retail. It never really fit the needs of Tower— a fact that even the developers who ultimately agreed to advance the project acknowledged.
While we still don’t know the future for the harbor, one thing is clear. Any future development needs to be tied to the real needs of the community. That includes additional retail and/or dining that brings people to town and offers connection to downtown. Housing that at least some residents in town might be able to afford. And an attractive, pedestrian-friendly setting that gets people to stop as they drive through on their way to Ely. These are things that drove interest in the harbor so many years ago— and they can restore interest and community support if those same principles are followed today.