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Our View: Essentia delivering a win for downtown

Essentia's coming multimillion-dollar remake of its aging, cobbled-together health care campus in the center of Duluth, expected to be its largest-ever investment here, could have happened on a site over the hill instead. Maybe not even in Duluth at all.

The possibility of building new over the hill and out of downtown rather than rebuilding at its current site was seriously considered by the health giant, Essentia officials revealed in an exclusive interview this month with members of the News Tribune Editorial Board.

"It's easier to build at the top of the hill," Essentia CEO David Herman acknowledged. "Costs are lower both to build and to maintain. And you can start on, really, a blank slate" because of the availability and convenience of open land.

So what swayed the decision? Why not over the hill?

"That doesn't support the city. That doesn't support the downtown. It takes vital activity that is close to downtown right now and moves it someplace else," Herman explained. "Making that decision to make (our) investment downtown is part of trying to create a more vibrant area and really to develop a more diverse economy here."

Essentially, Essentia recognized that an economically healthy Duluth is good for its own continued success — just as Duluthians can recognize that a thriving and strong Essentia and other businesses and industries is good for our community as a whole.

A healthy Duluth is especially important to Essentia's ability to attract and retain quality health care professionals. In an era of two-income households and the need for good jobs for spouses, too, an economically healthier community offers more employment opportunities, resulting in easier recruitment and retention.

"We're hoping that by making an investment in the core of Duluth, it'll attract other private investment," Herman said. "As we look at our challenges, how do we make ... sure that our facilities are attractive to people who want to work here? How do we make sure our community is attractive to people who want to move and work here? Because I believe in order to sustain and grow in Duluth, we're going to need to be able to attract people here for jobs and retain them here. You look out over (Lake Superior), and it's beautiful. A lot of people want to move to this area for the outdoors and the other things it offers. But unless you have that employment base — a broad diverse employment base — it's hard to attract and it's hard to retain."

Essentia announced its intents for a major makeover in December. In the last month it has met with the mayor, chamber of commerce, and other community leaders. While it's not known so early on what sorts of public infrastructure improvements or other public investment might be sought to pull off the undertaking, and while a big ask of the community certainly could sour public sentiment and support, the response, so far, has been positive, Herman and others from Essentia said — as it should be.

"There's an excitement," Herman said. "People feel it's time to move forward. It's the time to start doing this. I think there is a new generation of leadership here in Duluth that is on the cusp and is willing to step forward with us."

Perhaps others will be willing, too.

"I think of the (entrepreneurs in Duluth who have been) saying, 'I have this great idea,' and all they may need is a little push. This can be that push," said Kristi Schmidt, Essentia's marketing and communications director. "That to me is really exciting."

Exciting, especially for downtown, which stands to be the winner this time in what has been a decades-long struggle with "over the hill."