Duluth’s beloved Park Point a neighborhood in flux long before Cargill outcry

A surfer walks toward
A surfer walks along Duluth's Park Point on April 6.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Many Duluth residents and social media denizens are still indignant over billionaire Kathy Cargill’s recent purchases of more than a dozen homes on the city’s Park Point — and her comments calling the homes she subsequently demolished “pieces of crap” and Duluth “a small-minded community.”

Behind the uproar, locals will tell you the neighborhood that stretches seven miles into Lake Superior along a narrow, sandy beach has been changing for years, long before Kathy Cargill’s buying spree.

Birds-eye view of waves breaking on the beach with houses and buildings.
Park Point wasn't always the popular destination it is now. In the 1960s, it was often an avoided place of town.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Modest homes and cottages have been torn down and replaced by larger, much more expensive properties. Out-of-town owners have snatched up second homes. Vacation rentals have proliferated. Property taxes have soared.

For many in Duluth who recall sunny days hanging out at the beaches on this unique spit of sand and water, it’s an unnerving change. Park Point has long been an eclectic place, where Duluthians of all incomes could come and enjoy Lake Superior. Now some fear for the future of their closely knit community that for generations has served as a vibrant gateway to the lake.

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“The negativity has kind of gotten me down,” acknowledged Dawn Buck, president of the Park Point Community Club. “Park Pointers, from what I’ve found, strive to be kind and welcoming. And I’m determined and hopeful to rise above it, and get to know all of our neighbors.”

‘Wrong side of the tracks’

Pat Sterner first visited Park Point in the 1960s, when her aunt lived in a home along the beach overlooking Lake Superior. She remembers her parents warning her to lock the doors as they drove through Canal Park toward the Aerial Lift Bridge, past a junkyard, warehouses and seedy bars.

"At that point, Park Point was the wrong side of the tracks, big time,” recalled Sterner, now 68.

A woman stands outside of a house.
Pat Sterner stands in front of her home on Park Point, named for her Aunt Pat.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Back then, Canal Park wasn’t the popular tourist destination it is today, packed with hotels and restaurants, breweries and gift shops. Park Point, on the other side of the bridge, was a working class neighborhood lined with modest homes and cottages.

Many of those homes still exist. But the neighborhood has changed dramatically in recent years.

“I observed prices going up, more seasonal homes,” said Buck, who moved to Park Point in 2006, and now lives in the house first rented by her great-grandmother in 1930. “A lot of people now have their second home on Park Point” with some homes posted on Airbnb and Vrbo as vacation rentals, she added.

“That’s a concern. It really is,” said Sterner, who lives in her Aunt’s old home she used to visit as a kid, where she now hosts informal weekly neighborhood gatherings every Saturday afternoon. “Going from a neighborhood of residents to one of renters. That’s a problem.”

While Buck, Sterner and many other Park Pointers have roots on the Point going back generations, about a quarter of the roughly 500 properties on Park Point are now owned by people who live outside Duluth. Many of those are second homes, or rentals. And property values have skyrocketed.

An aerial view of Duluth Lakewalk
Duluth's newly rebuilt Lakewalk in December 2020. It protects Canal Park, the city's bustling tourist district.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

“Since we’ve moved in, the taxes have gone up 200 percent. And the assessed value of the house in the last five years has nearly doubled,” said Paul Treuer, a retired educator who fell in love with Park Point as a college student at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. He and his wife bought a house there in 2003.

Residents are meeting with St. Louis County officials later this month to discuss their concerns about rising property taxes.

“The concern for me is you’ve had families that have been out there and they started with meager means, they lived there for generations, and they’re probably going to get taxed out,” said Lynn Nephew, a Duluth city councilor and real estate agent.

Treuer worries the fabric of Park Point’s community may be fraying. He says those fears have been amplified by Cargill’s purchases of 14 homes on the Point. Nine have been torn down.

“Each one of these houses represents to me an inroad into changing the character of the community,” Treuer said. “And it makes me wonder, will this marvelous community persist? And I hope it does. But it certainly makes me question it, when houses like teeth are being pulled and not being replaced.”

A woman looks over photographs on a coffee table.
Dawn Buck looks at photos of her family over the years at her Park Point home, which was first rented by her great grandmother in 1930.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Cargill has been largely silent on her plans, although she told the Wall Street Journal she intended to build homes for family members.

But while the buying spree has prompted concern, and scorn, on social media, many who live on Park Point take a more nuanced approach. After all the Cargills are not the first family to buy up property. There are 18 other limited liability corporations, or LLCs, like what Cargill set up, that own properties on the point. Many longtime residents also own multiple homes.

“We all live here. We’re all a community,” said Andrea Kuzel, who moved to the point with her family eight years ago. They’ve since bought the small cottage in front of their home — in part to prevent it from becoming a vacation rental.

“Unless you are one of the original fishing homes that were on the point, I don’t think we necessarily have any right to say, ‘Oh, well, OK, we can buy here, but they can’t buy here,’ like the line stops at us. It’s kind of the pot calling the kettle black,” said Kuzel.

Kuzel does worry about vacation rentals in a city with a severe housing shortage. She knows people who have turned down good jobs in Duluth because they couldn’t find a house.

People walk along the beach at Park Point
Thousands of people come to the seven mile long public beach on Duluth's Park Point every year to walk, swim and even surf.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

There are 33 vacation rentals on Park Point alone. That’s more than a third of all the rentals allowed in Duluth residential neighborhoods. And there are actually more than that, noted Nephew, who said some Park Point property owners have gotten around the city’s vacation rental cap by offering their homes only as long-term rentals, for 30 days or more.

“I have concerns about it being primarily a rental or absentee location, because I don’t think that brings a healthy community,” said Nephew.

An eroding point

Regardless of how one feels about Kathy Cargill’s purchases, the underlying housing tensions they have brought to the forefront are likely only going to accelerate as more and more people discover this stretch of sand on the world’s largest freshwater lake.

“The whole climate change destination piece is a real thing,” said Nephew. “And I know some people hesitate to want to talk about it. But all agents, if you’ve been doing business in the last five years, I guarantee you’ve sold at least one house if not more than that to people who are climate change refugees, or they bought a house saying, ‘At some point in time where I’m currently living, I may not be able to live there anymore.’”

A couple walks along the Lake Superior shoreline at Park Point in Duluth.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

And while some deride people from the Twin Cities and elsewhere gobbling up Park Point properties as second homes, Pat Sterner said her family essentially did the same thing.

She said they treated her Aunt’s old house as a vacation home until she moved there full-time seven years ago, tired of the growing suburban sprawl in Denver. Now she’s a fixture in the community.

“So I think this is part and parcel of the change that happens over generations,” said Sterner.

Meanwhile, many Park Pointers are concerned not just about their changing community, but the changing environment.

In recent years, giant storms and high water in Lake Superior have pummeled the point, eroding the beach and dunes that lie between the lake and homes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dumped sand on a portion of the beach four years ago to replenish it. But Duluth City Council President Roz Randorf, who represents the point, said that’s just a Band-Aid fix.

“Beyond the glitz and glamor of buying and selling homes on Park Point, behind the scenes is a complex, environmentally sensitive neighborhood that’s really threatened,” Randorf said.

Locals have formed a planning committee to address long-term concerns on the point, headed up by Treuer, who said he’s alarmed not just by the erosion of community he sees in his neighborhood, but the physical erosion of the beach in front of his home.

Water surrounds an area of land that is eroded.
In 2020, dredged material was used to replenish a portion of the Park Point Beach that is being steadily eroded by higher water levels on Lake Superior and stronger storms.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Randorf says council members are discussing behind the scenes what their role is, if any, in the wake of the Cargill flap.

“Do we get involved if someone starts purchasing homes and taking them down?” she asked. “Do we have to bake in a plan where you say, ‘What are you replacing that with, you have to replace it with an equal number of units?’ So there’s all kinds of policies we’re looking at.”

Meanwhile, Park Point residents say they’ll do what they’ve always done, welcoming newcomers and educating them about the fragile environment and their role in preserving it.

“For a lot of us,” said Sterner, “it really comes back to respecting the land here and being a part of the community."