UMD Alumnus Moves into Duluth’s Highest Office
He's devoted to Duluth and has invested his entire life in the city. That dedication is obvious when he talks about his plans for the toughest job in Northern Minnesota. Duluth Mayor Don Ness (1997 Business Admin.) is ready to face the difficult issues.
It was during college that Ness’s passion for public service developed. He became active in campus politics as a way to meet fellow classmates and get involved in student life. “Student government opened up that door,” says Ness. “I had some talent to offer. I had passion and skills in presenting the student perspective in governance.” Others recognized these talents too; he eventually became Student Association President and later Chair of the University of Minnesota Student Senate, representing over 60,000 students to the University of Minnesota administration and State Legislature.
His accomplishments while in student government foretold his abilities in leadership. He was relentless in his pursuits on behalf of the student body, and helped bring an urgently needed new library to campus. A campus daycare program was another initiative that was important to Ness. He laid the groundwork for the center that was built in 2005.
While studying at UMD, Ness was frustrated because students were disconnected to the city. "As a student leader, I tried to increase connections" he said. “A lot of problems we have today were in their infancy a decade ago.”
Now, as mayor, Ness has to deal with the tension between the community and students. In 2007, a rental ordinance was passed as a reaction to upset neighbors. They blamed students for crowded rental houses, unruly parties, trash and parking problems. The new law states that no license will be issued for any rental unit within a distance of 300 feet from any other licensed dwelling.
According to Ness, the ordinance doesn’t address the problem. He
said there isn’t enough respect between students and residents and
advocates a community dialogue to alleviate the strife. It’s part
of his “broad vision” approach. “It goes both ways,”
he said. “If we can improve the understanding of perspective and
respect between groups of people, that would be more effective than trying
to have city government impose a legislative solution."
Ness brings his broad vision to Duluth’s economy and culture. In his position on the Duluth City Council just prior to taking office as mayor, (2000-2007) he noticed a scarcity of young opinions in community discussions. He was sensitive to the lack of participation by young adults, because at age 25, he was the second-youngest person ever elected to the council. As a way to alleviate this imbalance, Ness formed the Bridge Syndicate, a non-profit organization that enabled young people in the Duluth area to connect with one another. According to their philosophy, the more engaged young people become in civic affairs, the more likely they will stay in Duluth. The group began with Ness and seven other members in January 2001, and quickly bloomed in size to over 500 members by the end of the year.
“We tapped into a wellspring of interest and enthusiasm,”
Ness said. “It was an eye-opener to leaders of the community that
so many young people were passionate about Duluth.”
As a result of the Bridge Syndicate’s success, partners in the Duluth community followed suit. A Young Professionals group was formed by the Chamber of Commerce in February 2005, allowing the Bridge Syndicate to focus on community projects associated with arts, entertainment, and culture.
The Bridge Syndicate is currently the fiscal agent for Bob Dylan Way, a project which will create a cultural pathway stretching 1.8 miles through Duluth’s vibrant downtown art community. The path was named in honor of Duluth native, Bob Dylan.
Also undertaken by the Bridge Syndicate is the Homegrown Music Festival, a yearly showcase of local bands that has become a major attraction to Duluth. Ness was the director of the festival in 2007, a year in which 130 acts performed.
Don Ness was born in Duluth in 1974, and since then hasn’t strayed far from home. He attended Grant Elementary, Washington Junior High, and Central High School before getting accepted to UMD in 1993.
When it came time to graduate in from the university in 1997, Ness was put at a crossroads. Although he wanted to stay in Duluth to begin his career, he wasn’t encouraged to do so. “The accepted path for young professionals was to start your career in the Twin Cities and hope you’d have the opportunity to move back,” he said. “It was frustrating to me that community leaders were encouraging me to move.”
As it turned out, he didn’t need to go that far. U.S. Congressman Jim Oberstar hired Ness as his campaign manager for his 2000 reelection campaign. Ness was only 23 years old at the time and he became fully involved in Minnesota politics, with Oberstar as his mentor. “I respected Congressman Oberstar and his approach to public service. I enjoyed the work, and I enjoyed working for him.” Ness gained invaluable insight. “We would drive around for hours at a time and I would pick his brain,” he says. “He was very generous in sharing with me and taking on the role of professor.”
With all the challenges Ness faces now, he feels fortunate for the lessons he learned working with Congressman Oberstar. He knows his new job won’t be easy. Nevertheless, he maintains a positive attitude about creating a better Duluth.
by UMD students Mariana Osorio and Tom Gadbois, with staff writer Cheryl Reitan
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