|38th Mayor of Duluth|
January 7, 2008 - January 4, 2016
January 9, 1974|
Ness was born in Duluth to Don and Mary Ness. His father was the pastor of a small, non-denominational Christian church, who also was Chaplin at Northwoods Children's Services. He was educated in Duluth's public school system, attending Central High School, then went on to the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), where he served as Student Body President in 1995-96, and as chair of the University-wide Student Senate in 1996-97. He graduated with a Bachelor's Degree in Business Administration and was given the Sieur du Lhut Award for his service to the campus. He recently earned a MBA degree from the College of Saint Scholastica.
Ness has a history of active service to and involvement in the Duluth community. He founded the Bridge Syndicate, a group of young people whose mission is to increase civic, cultural, and economic opportunities in the Twin Ports. Ness was also festival director of the Homegrown Music Festival for two years; the festival expanded to an eight-day festival under his leadership.
In the Fall of 1999, Ness was elected to the Duluth City Council as the city's councilor-at-large. In 2001 and 2004, he served as council president.
Ness was elected mayor of Duluth in November 2007 from a pool of 12 candidates. He was inaugurated for his first term on January 7, 2008, at a ceremony held at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.
Elected at age 33, Ness is often referred to as the youngest mayor to take office in Duluth, when in fact John Fedo was the youngest having been 29 when he was elected in 1979.
Since Ness took office in 2008, Duluth has overcome several challenges. The first resolution was to balance the growing $4.4 million budget deficit.
In 2008, Ness addressed the problem of runaway retiree healthcare costs by moving retired City employees to a plan that matched those of current employees. Eligible retirees were moved to Medicare. Previously, retirees were able to keep the plan in effect upon retirement. This adjustment reduced Duluth's unfunded healthcare liability by $209 million in 2013. Labor unions took the City to the state Supreme Court over the issue but were unsuccessful.
Through hard work and making other difficult and unpopular decisions, Duluth's general fund increased from a negative balance of $1.3 million in 2008 to a $7.53 million reserve in 2011.
In 2009, the federal government and EPA mandated that Duluth make improvements to the city's sewer system, which was estimated to cost $130 million. According to the EPA, there were 250 sanitary sewer overflows between 1999 and 2004. Duluth embraced the challenge to completely eliminate sanitary sewer overflow by the year 2016. The project was completed in 2013 under budget.
Two years after election, the national recession resulted in a cut of annual state aid by $5.2 million in 2010.
In 2011, Duluth's downtown casino, Fond du Luth, challenged their original agreement with the city to pay Duluth $6 million per year. Even though the NIGC, Federal Court, the City, and the Band had all approved the agreement in 1994, the NIGC ruled that it violated the sole-propriety interest rule. This caused a $6million budget decline in Duluth's street repair budget.
Since 1987, the St. Louis River has been listed as an area of concern (AOC) by the EPA due to many years of pollution from industrial and landfill sites. The cleanup began in 1978 before it was listed as an AOC with the installation of a waste-water treatment plant.
In 2009, Mayor Ness organized a St. Louis River Corridor Summit and brought over 70 stakeholders together to develop a comprehensive vision for the area. It will see another $300-400 million in additional federal, state, and private money to continue the restoration progress. Ness' vision for the St. Louis River Corridor is to maintain the cleanliness of the river and have it delisted as an AOC with the EPA by 2025.
As Mayor Ness has said, "There's no question that if not for Lake Superior, Duluth would be defined as a river city. Duluth should be defined by both the world's greatest lake AND the world's largest fresh water estuary. By doing so, we open up many possibilities along the River."
In 2014 Ness secured State authorization to re-establish a half percent tax on lodging and half percent on food and beverages tax. These funds would be dedicated to developing the corridor into an outdoor adventure destination.
Improvements to the area include a rehabilitation of Grand Avenue by adding in more sidewalks, bike lanes, and connections to nearby bike trails. The city and volunteers through COGGS are working to complete a 100-mile single track bike trail called the Duluth Traverse that will connect to trails in the corridor. A city-subsidized chalet at Spirit Mountain connects the ski hill to Grand Avenue. The city is also working to improve access points to the river for paddlers.
The land along the St. Louis River Corridor is ready for development with over 1,000 acres of potential industrial sites; extensive utility infrastructure and rail availability; shipping capacity and waterfront sites.
Ness and his wife, Laura, met in 2002 when she was a field staff worker for the late Senator Paul Wellstone. They were married in 2004, and are the parents of three children, Eleanor Mary, James Olav, and Owen Fitzpatrick. Laura is an Assistant Director of the Montessori School of Duluth