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City of Duluth

Nancy Harris Retires After Serving 16 Years as Mayor of Duluth

During Nancy Harris’ four terms as mayor, the City of Duluth made great strides in its popular downtown area and throughout the rest of the city.

Looking back, Harris sees that her success as mayor is very much intertwined with her long career in education.

Lifelong Duluth resident

Harris has lived her entire life in Duluth.

Growing up, she attended church in the building that now houses the Maple Street Biscuit Company. The priest for that church lived in what is now Falling Rabbit restaurant.

She remembers that the Dreamland BBQ building used to be the Parson’s dry goods and grocery store warehouse.

Those memories inspired Harris to get involved with the city government.

From education to government

Harris returned to work in Duluth when she was selected to be the principal at B.B. Harris Elementary School (named after her father). It was her third assignment as a principal.

One of Harris’ habits when she was assigned to a school was to introduce herself to the folks in the area. When she did this in Duluth, she found out that developers were planning to tear down every building in what is now Parson’s Alley. Every single building.

“I didn’t know I was sentimental until I started hearing all of this,” Harris said. “I just couldn’t believe it. So, I started going to the meetings of the downtown development authority.”

Her presence at those meetings and her conversations with so many people in town led people to suggest that she run for mayor. She prayed about it, discussed it with others and decided to run.

She won.

Historical redevelopment

Harris’ first term focused on starting a program of historical redevelopment in the city. Something she admits she didn’t know a lot about at that time. But she knew the history of Duluth, and she wanted to preserve it as much as possible while still providing avenues for growth in the city. 

The economy in the county was not doing well at that time, which was fortunate for the Parson’s Alley area.

The developer planning to demolish all those buildings pulled out of the project, which gave Harris and the city council time to study the best way to move forward.

Shared governance is key

In Duluth, the mayor does not have a vote on matters unless there is a tie. So, it’s important for the mayor to get the city council and staff to develop and buy into a clear vision for the city.

Harris calls that ‘shared governance,’ which she was quite familiar with in the school system.  

“As a principal, the superintendent asked me to raise test scores,” she explained. “I can’t raise test scores! It takes the whole school to raise test scores.”

To accomplish this, Harris realized that it was not about what she wanted but what the teachers wanted.

“So even in school,” she said, “you have to get a wide range of people to buy into whatever your vision is, and then you need them to execute it.”

She took the same approach to being mayor.

“I didn’t really care about having a vote,” Harris said. “I cared more about being influential and achieving a consensus. Maybe we all weren’t going to agree, but we had to reach a consensus, and then we had to support it out in public. But everybody has input.”

Holistic approach

The revitalization of the downtown theater that houses Eddie Owen Presents, and the Red Clay Music Foundry is a great example of the holistic approach Harris, the council and their staff use.

It’s essential to keep the history, but you must make it work in today’s world.

“We had to fight that fight,” Harris said.

The city paid for research on performing arts venues in the United States. They discovered that none of the venues make a profit on their own. They all depended on donations, fundraisers and grants to sustain themselves.

“We tried numerous things over there, but we realized we had to quit trying to make money off it,” Harris said. “So, we learned the hard way. We looked for someone and found Eddie [Owen] from Eddie’s Attic. We were able to persuade him to come. It has been a big success.”

Duluth started collecting data to define how much of a success it’s been. Their research showed that the restaurants in the area were doing better on nights there was a concert.

That data helps justify the money that the city invests in Red Clay. During her terms, Harris had to explain it many times. She knows that’s exactly the way it should be. 

“When we get a new council member, and rightly so, they question everything,” Harris said. “But we have good data. We can say why we’re doing it.”

Creative methods

Harris was always looking for ways to make Duluth outstanding, no matter where those ideas came from.

When a staff member suggested that the Avalon development in Alpharetta might be a source of good ideas, Harris and a team from City Hall made a 7 a.m. field trip to get a behind-the-scenes look at how Avalon worked.

One of the things they saw at Avalon, was the emphasis on public safety, which mirrored her own administration. The city works constantly with and invests in the Duluth Police Department to keep the city a safe and welcoming place.

Harris’ “Carpool Karaoke” videos were also a fun way to promote the city. Each episode of the Undercover Mayor videos was a way to communicate the standards and expectations of the city. They served a purpose, but they were also entertaining[Ad1] .

She remembers the cricket box factory that used to take up the east side of Main Street from Red Clay to the corner where Pure Taqueria is now.

It is a unique part of Duluth. So, when the new library was being designed for downtown, she made sure the architects incorporated some of the features of the factory building into the library building.

Vision

Looking back on her time as mayor, Harris said she’s most proud of the fact that she was able to have a vision for the city and carry it forward.

“It takes a team to do that,” she said.

She built that team by working with the city council and gaining the public’s trust to execute that vision.

Another big part of that team that Harris gives a lot of credit to is the staff at City Hall.

“We have really intelligent staff,” she said. “They’re the key.”

She also has a lot of confidence in new mayor Greg Whitlock. Whitlock served 16 years on the city council, coinciding with Harris’s time as mayor.

“He earned it. He’s instrumental in everything that happened,” Harris said. “I’m looking forward to his leadership.” When it comes to Duluth, Harris said she always has a guiding principle: “We want everybody to be successful.”

Featured Image: Former mayor Nancy Harris
Photos courtesy of the City of Duluth

Written By

Glenn is a freelance writer living in Gwinnett County. He writes about a broad range of subjects, including business, music, sports, and nonprofits. His work has been published in magazines and websites nationwide.

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