Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Nov-Dec 2018 issue

Ideas In Action: Duluth Celebrates Its Cold Side with Winter Festival

By McKayla Collins

The City of Duluth, a popular vacation destination on Lake Superior, is alive with tourists during the summer, but crowds disappear during the frigid winter. So, the city decided to try to entice residents to come out of hibernation.

To take on this challenge, Duluth embarked on its Imagine Canal Park initiative in July 2017 as part of its Imagine Duluth 2035 Comprehensive Plan Update.

Prior to the initiative, Canal Park was known among residents as busy with tourists in the summer, but slow in the winter. The initiative aimed to create more appeal throughout the year and better connect Canal Park to other parts of Duluth.

The city kept residents involved in this process of reshaping Canal Park from the start. Baseline data and community engagement events informed the city of the types of activities residents wanted from Canal Park. The city used a pop-up pilot project method to quickly turn residents’ ideas into action. This approach kept residents engaged and eliminated frustrations associated with slow progress.

The first event in the series of pop-ups was the Cold Front February Kick-Off Celebration, which took place Feb. 1–4. Canal Park transformed into a winter festival and saw more than 1,800 guests. The event won a League of Minnesota Cities 2018 City of Excellence Award.

Crunching the numbers

To take the initiative from imagination to reality, Duluth was awarded a $201,400 Knight Cities Challenge Grant. In September 2017, the city got to work collecting data. City Planner Emilie Voight says Duluth’s approach to data collection was to “talk to people where they live and work” to understand what changes residents wanted to see in the Canal Park area.

A launch party for Imagine Canal Park gathered more than 400 participants who shared their thoughts. Additionally, over 700 responses were collected from an online survey on the Imagine Canal Park website. The results were clear: 65 percent of respondents said they wanted to see a “winter festival” in Canal Park; 49 percent wanted “fire pits;” and 21 percent wanted “outdoor curling.”

As part of their data collection, the city also found that 72 percent of respondents drove to Canal Park. In terms of frequency of visits, 35 percent visited Canal Park monthly and 36 percent weekly. The top three design changes respondents wanted to see were more access to restrooms, more places to sit, and a public plaza. The programs respondents asked for most were farmers markets, outdoor concerts, and pedestrian-friendly streets.

Keeping insights from the data in mind, Duluth identified goals of activating Canal Park for year-round activity, designing the space for all ages and abilities, and seamlessly connecting Canal Park to the rest of the city.

Embracing the cold

Duluth teamed up with several partnering organizations to achieve its goals. Two of its partners—Zeitgeist Center for Arts & Community and the nonprofit organization 8 80 Cities, based in Toronto—had experience with pop-up projects and paved the way. Working with a short time frame meant the city could temporarily try out several ideas—even some simultaneously.

For the first project, several suggestions combined to become the Cold Front February Kick-Off Celebration. The entire event went from idea to reality in under three months. This small window of time required significant investment from everyone involved.

Duluth collaborated with 8 80 Cities, Canal Park Business Association, Duluth Children’s Museum, Duluth Transit Authority, Gardener Builders, Greater Downtown Council, Great Lakes Aquarium, Lake Superior College, Lake Superior Zoo, Lakewalk Gallery, Visit Duluth, Zeitgeist Center for Arts & Community, and several local retailers and restaurants to bring the event to life.

Canal Park keeps busy throughout the year in different ways, says Matt Baumgartner, president of the Canal Park Business Association, who served as a liaison between the business community and city for the Imagine Canal Park initiative. Tourism provides most of the traffic during fall and summer; winter brings visitors for holiday celebrations and students from college sporting events.

Though never quiet, Canal Park does experience some lulls in the midwinter months. “If we were to identify our slowest months, they would have to be January and February—still busy with [college] games and other events—but overall, they would be our slowest,” Baumgartner says.

The frozen month of February offered the perfect opportunity to bring residents back to Canal Park for winter fun. Voight says the collaboration of so many groups and organizations made the event a success.

“Attempting to do something of this scale wouldn’t be possible without the engaged community we have,” she says. “We’re trying to involve local partners as much as possible because they’re the experts in what people want.”

Partners tapped into what residents and guests alike wanted, offering a 500-meter skating track on the Lakewalk, a mini curling rink, and sledding hill. There were also heated tents for relaxing, fat tire bike demonstrations and s’mores, yoga in the snow, and fire dancers. Many of the activities and food and beverages were offered free of charge.

Despite being Super Bowl weekend in Minneapolis and bitterly cold, the Cold Front February Kick-Off didn’t fail to draw crowds. “It was 20 below and people were still waiting out there to use the ice track,” Voight says of attendees’ enthusiasm.

Although Imagine Canal Park emphasized inviting residents back to the area, out-of-town visitors were welcome, too. The city did not target a specific group in marketing the event, but “we did try and think our strategy through to get both tourists and residents,” Voight says.

The results are in

With over 1,800 event attendees, it was obvious the city’s marketing techniques worked to bring out residents and tourists alike. City staff were on-site to tally attendees, take feedback on the event, and explain the Imagine Canal Park initiative. Vendors who participated could share thoughts on their experience through an online survey, and community members could see summary infographics of the event on social media.

“The goal, of course, is to see what people like and don’t like and if it has any impact on neighborhoods, businesses, or stakeholders,” says Voight. The winter event was a hit, with 96 percent of attendees giving it a positive rating, and many—project partners included—mentioned ideas for “next year.”

Though the process for putting the Cold Front February Kick-Off Celebration together in under three months was intensive, Voight was happy to do it. “This has been a challenging and exciting process for us and required a lot of collaboration, which has been enriching for us,” she says.

A new front

Imagine Canal Park concluded in November 2018. Before that, other temporary projects were tested out in the area. Buchanan Street, which sits between Lake Avenue and Canal Park Drive, was closed during September to become a temporary pedestrian plaza where patrons enjoyed shaded seating near shops and restaurants.

For about two weeks in September, the Lighthouse Parking Lot in Canal Park closed and turned into a community space. The city partnered with the Duluth Children’s Museum and Lake Superior Zoo to provide games, seating, a sports area, sandbox, and other free activities.

Duluth also put up 25 new maps and signs to help people find their way to and from Canal Park. Posted walking distances and other features helped establish better connections between Canal Park and other areas of the city.

Zeitgeist Active Living Coordinator Shawna Mullen contributed to the Imagine Canal Park initiative by working with community partners, providing evaluation and measurement, and recruiting and managing volunteers. She says the project partners gained a lot of insight from the initiative.

“Typically it takes permanent or long-term change to induce behavior change on a communitywide scale,” Mullen says. “But that’s what these Imagine Canal Park pop-up events are all about—testing out things that could potentially become permanent or long-term, leading to more locals utilizing Canal Park as a common gathering space.”

McKayla Collins is a communications intern with the League of Minnesota Cities. She is a recent graduate of St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona, where she majored in public relations and minored in general business.

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