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 Republished with permission from May 14, 2009 Northland Reader

School board aims shovels at pristine green field


The destruction of green space once elicited angry cries in Duluth, but a new plan that will uproot a square mile of undisturbed land is barely raising eyebrows.

Why? The parcel is hidden in a far corner of West End, where residents lack the political clout and financial resources to fight the massive development.

The project, known as Wheeler North, would position a middle school just above the DM&IR corridor on a green field  that runs from Chestnut to Wellington Streets. Just a few blocks uphill from the A& Dubbs drive-in restaurant lies a pristine site where backhoes soon could rip up wild strawberry fields and former pastures that helped feed generations of Germans, Poles and Italians who settled the neighborhood a hundred years ago.

Most of those families Ė such as the Stammens, Gimples, Scheers and Stockmans Ė are long gone. The neighborhood and its old houses have largely morphed into transient housing for low-income renters whoíve managed to escape the Central Hillside. These arenít monied socialites who can afford to sue the Duluth School District every time an eagle craps on their porch.  

That dubious tale generated headlines when the School Board proposed to stuff East High onto the Ordean site. Unhappy neighbors managed to pull an eagleís nest out of their pocket with hopes of milking the rare bird.

Those who reside near Wheeler North, however, havenít been nearly as clever. So far, raping the western hillside has generated neither discussion nor lawsuits. Beyond the crumbling pavement on Chestnut Street, where the school district hopes to demolish several homes to accommodate a newly paved entrance road, the ambitious West End school plan is nearly a secret.

The lack of news coverage is troubling but not unexpected. Few local reporters reside east of Lake Avenue, so theyíre seldom familiar with western neighborhoods or their problems. Many are simply incapable of preparing a story thatís not spoon fed at a news conference or public meeting.

For sure, the lack of media scrutiny is helping to squelch discussion about alternative school sites, such as the existing Central High or Lincoln properties . Assisted by this knowledge vacuum, the School Board can spew nonsense about the high cost of rebuilding Central without anyone questioning the high cost of extending utilities and building roads into the Wheeler North site, where the dominant geological feature is solid rock.

Environmentally unsound?

Unearthing wild raspberries, strawberries and lichen-covered boulders is merely one concern about the Wheeler North site. It doesnít take a passel of clever attorneys to uproot others. Simple observation from hillside outcroppings provide a quick education.

The DM&IR rail corridor, where taconite-filled trains speed from Iron Range mines to the Ore Docks, is located between the proposed school and Wheeler Field. Thereís only one way to quickly walk from the proposed school site to the athletic complex and West Duluth residential area: Dart across a dozen railroad tracks like an overcharged bunny.

But thatís not the only safety issue. The other is air pollution.

Sixty years ago, nearby residents pulled clean linens off their clothes line each time a steam locomotive flew down the tracks, spewing coal soot in every direction. Those days are long gone, but airborne dust particles continue to be a concern, and prevailing winds blow toward the school site.

On numerous occasions, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has fined DM&IR for dust emissions created when taconite pellets are moved and stockpiled. Although most of the emissions occur near the Ore Docks, a quick walk along the rail corridor unveils a virtual treasure trove of pellets that have dropped from speeding rail cars. In addition to fueling local slingshots, the pellets create dust as they bounce along the tracks.

Those who reside in the neighborhood also are familiar with blue clouds that billow from brake pads as locomotive engineers slow their trains during the quick descent between Proctor and the working waterfront. The smell of hot brakes, which is evident for blocks, and particulates from the brake pads will heighten the sickly ambiance at the Wheeler North outdoor athletic field, recess field and hiking trail.

How can this be?

Superintendent of Schools Keith Dixon has suggested the Red Plan arose from discussions held at numerous public meetings. Citizens who participated in those sessions, however, say they were poorly attended, often by fewer than two dozen people, and certainly didnít generate a community-wide consensus. In any event, itís hard to imagine that a local participant suggested bulldozing an undisturbed green field instead of reusing convenient sites that already are equipped with water, sewer and power lines.

Unfortunately, Dixon and his heavy-handed minions are hell-bent on initiating every aspect of the plan before the fall school board elections, when voters will tell board members what they really think. By then, however, it will be too late for to halt the expensive madness; the environmental damage will be irreversible.

Author Ron Brochu refuses to lighten up and hopes more Duluthians will do the same. He archives his writings at

 See a former Duluth City Planner's opinion of the site


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