SUPERIOR — They are twin cities in many ways, but it’s much more fraternal than identical.
Superior, Wisconsin, and Duluth, Minnesota, are both port towns on the western shore of Lake Superior. Separated only by a bay and connected by two bridges, they share a history tied to shipbuilding, railroads, iron ore, grain, timber and many other cargo goods. Both are cool in the summer, cold in the winter and surrounded by North Country beauty year-round.
During a recent visit for a Wisconsin Technology Council event, my “compare and contrast” was a reminder that cities must constantly refresh themselves and their economies to compete in the region, the nation and the world. For the moment, Duluth has a distinct edge — but Superior is planning ways to come back.
In days gone by, Superior and Duluth were somewhat closer in population — about 40,000 in Superior in the early to mid-1900s versus 78,000 for Duluth in the same era. The split widened over time to about 27,000 for Superior today and 87,000 for Duluth. Superior retains something of a working-class heritage while Duluth almost feels like an extension of the Minneapolis-St. Paul region to the south — more techy, a bit more artsy and somewhat more prosperous.
Household income data and other metrics bear that out, and so does the industry mix, which currently tilts in Duluth’s favor when it comes to sector diversity.
That could swing back in a positive way for Superior if some current and planned initiatives work out.
About a year ago, a mix of entities focused on promoting startup growth took up residence in a refurbished post office in downtown Superior. The Superior Entrepreneurship Center will be joined soon by the latest branch of the WiSys “VentureHome” project, a University of Wisconsin System initiative to combine statewide and local resources to help launch and grow young companies — often building off campus-based technology.
The center also features coworking space and other spots for young businesses.
Nearby is the UW-Superior campus, where an Applied Research Center will open this fall. Other existing research helps foster the region’s role as a transportation and natural resources hub, such as the Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute, the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve, and the Transportation and Logistics Center. Some commerce-ready ideas could spring from those types of programs.
Meanwhile, the Superior Business Improvement District — Wisconsin’s largest in area — is working to rejuvenate core retail businesses and generally increase “foot traffic” by visitors and residents alike. Superior can attract visitors year-round, and director Kelly Peterson thinks a convention center might spur further growth.
More working capital and a bigger workforce are among the goals of business and academic leaders in Superior, including UW-Superior Chancellor Renée Wachter, whose priorities include business engagement throughout the region. Parts of the campus “Forward Superior” plan that runs through 2024 emphasize forging strategic partnerships and translating research into commercial or other action.
Another trend may be working in Superior’s favor: The arrival of so-called “climate refugees.”
Amid one of the hottest summers on record and with water in short supply in some places, there is solid evidence that migrations are taking place globally and even nationally. Some economists predict cooler communities near bodies of water will become a draw, much like southern U.S. cities were after the widespread adoption of air-conditioning in homes.
Finally, Wisconsin’s tax climate — much maligned by some but always in need of improvement — is more favorable than conditions in Minnesota. Tax Foundation rankings for business taxes show Wisconsin at 27th among the 50 states, while Minnesota stands at 45th. So why not locate on the Superior side of the bridge?
Different cities can build on their own unique attributes, even if fortune and past decisions haunt them. Superior is one example of a city working to improve.
Tom Still is the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.