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Duluth reverses course, will light iconic lift bridge in support of Ukraine

In a statement to constituents, Mayor Emily Larson said "What appears simple from the outside quickly gets layered and nuanced with important and relevant details."

DULUTH, Minn. — Editor's note: The video above first aired Oct. 14, 2021

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson heard the message. 

On Tuesday, Larson announced in a statement to constituents that the city's iconic Lake Superior lift bridge will be lit in blue and yellow through Sunday in support of Ukraine and its people. The decision comes after a flood of emails and messages to the mayor's office and city council members taking issue with Duluth's current lighting policy. 

"Sometimes you make a decision based on important variables like rules and fairness and then understand that those things really don’t apply," the mayor explained Tuesday morning. "Sometimes you are working to do all the right things, and your heart confirms that there is more. The community is right. Thank you for reminding me of who Duluth is."

The hubbub over the bridge started last weekend, when Duluth's Enger tower was lit in yellow and blue to emphasize solidarity with Ukraine as the country remains under attack by neighboring Russia and President Vladamir Putin. But after numerous requests to do the same with the lift bridge Larson on Monday declined, citing a policy of not taking lighting requests to ensure fairness and head off accusations of favoritism. 

“The city has chosen to make the bridge off-limits for personal life events, political, financial, commercial, or causal gain,” Larson said yesterday.

A bit of recent history... the lights on the lift bridge were updated to a multi-colored LED system in March of 2020 at the cost of $155,000. Before that, it would cost thousands of dollars to light the bridge for events like the Fourth of July and Ovarian Cancer Awareness.

Now, city officials say lighting the lift bridge is as easy as hitting a button on an app.

Following the introduction of the new system, Duluth saw an influx in requests to turn the lights different colors to support different causes.

“These requests were and are overwhelming for staff and put us in the difficult position of determining which cause should benefit by its lighting and which should not,” said Duluth’s Chief Administrator Officer Noah Schuchman.

That surge led to the adoption of the city’s current policy.

“The city does not accept requests for lighting the historic lift bridge,” Schuchman said.

Since the adoption of that policy the lift bridge has only lit up a handful of times. KBJR news reports that in April 2020, the bridge was bathed in blue as part of the #LightitBlue campaign to recognize essential and healthcare workers.

Larson also authorized lighting the bridge twice more in 2020, once to honor graduates and again in November for what she called “a moment of unity” during the pandemic.

KBJR says it is unclear why these situations warranted exceptions to the city’s policy.

Several organizations have urged the city to reconsider its policy, including the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance (MOCA), which used to light up the bridge every September.

“I think lighting this bridge teal or whatever color, whatever cause can really raise the attention. It’s a big voice in the Twin Ports,” said Kristine Greer, Board Chair of MOCA.

The response of residents to the situation in Ukraine appears to now be the tipping point in the decision to rethink the city's lighting policy. 

"What appears simple from the outside quickly gets layered and nuanced with important and relevant details," Larson said Tuesday. "Thank you to staff who have spent time all weekend and yesterday on this with me." 

The mayor says a new policy will be in place within 60 days time, and will soon be shared with residents.

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