Duluth: From agricultural town to diverse, bustling city

Duluth has transformed its image over the past decade. And it isn’t done changing.
Downtown Duluth has dozens of shops, boutiques and restaurants along Main Street on Thursday, Feb 11, 2021.  City Hall is adjacent to an outdoor amphitheater and the community is biker and pedestrian friendly.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Downtown Duluth has dozens of shops, boutiques and restaurants along Main Street on Thursday, Feb 11, 2021. City Hall is adjacent to an outdoor amphitheater and the community is biker and pedestrian friendly. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Duluth offers critically acclaimed restaurants, apartments and townhomes within walking distance of downtown and a Town Green for its nearly 30,000 residents to gather with family and friends. But much of what gives the city its inviting nature didn’t exist a few decades ago.

With a downtown already partially remade, the city is preparing to expand along the “other side of the tracks” while creating an inclusive environment for its residents new to Duluth and to the U.S.

Much like Gwinnett County itself, Duluth was once a predominately white town. But beginning in the 1990s, population booms brought new residents from every corner of the globe. A quick drive up Duluth Highway toward downtown offers a glimpse of the high concentration of Asian-Americans, with Korean-owned businesses and churches dotting both sides of the road.

Outside of nine years spent at boarding school, Kathryn Parsons Willis has lived in Duluth for all 89 years of her life. She recalls in the 1930s when the Gwinnett town only had 600 residents and one paved road surrounded by sprawling fields of cotton.

Willis watched her hometown change before her eyes, as new restaurants and stores populated the once desolate Main Street and high-end apartments an townhomes popped up throughout the city.

Duluth looks nothing like it did for most of her life, but Willis wouldn’t want it any other way. “There’s just so much in downtown Duluth that pulls people here, mainly because it’s an open area where they feel accepted,” Willis said. “It’s just wonderful.”

While most longtime residents feel the same way, she occasionally hears someone complain about missing the old ways of Duluth. “And I say, ‘Well, I don’t. My goodness, look what we’ve got now,’” Willis chuckled.

Despite the vast changes experienced by both longtime and relatively new residents, Duluth is continuing to grow and city leaders say they are working to ensure all feel welcomed and represented.

Chris McGahee, economic development director, has his hands full with more than 20 new developments underway or under review in the city. “The challenges are understanding that change is going to happen, and the quiet little place that used to belong to you is going to be shared by a lot of people,” he said.

The birth of a new downtown

Over the past decade, Duluth changed its image at a hectic pace as it absorbed new residents.

In 2013, the city started reimagining the buildings across the railroad tracks between West Lawrenceville, Main, Abbotts Bridge and Hill streets.

At the time, Dreamland BBQ was eyeing property for a new restaurant off Sugarloaf Parkway after its Peachtree Corners location burned down, city officials urged the restaurant to instead open in downtown Duluth. In 2016 it became one of the first businesses in what would become Parsons Alley, said Tim Clark, former general manager of Dreamland BBQ.

The entertainment and dining district, which once housed Parsons General Store, was quickly filled with other businesses, including Nacho Daddy, Good Word Brewing and Noona Steakhouse and Oyster Bar.

Not long afterward, an opportunity to replace a rundown shopping center near downtown with luxury apartments landed in the city’s lap, McGahee said. Built at the corner of Buford Highway and Duluth Highway in the late 1960s, Proctor Square was demolished in 2016 to make way for the District at Duluth. The 371-unit apartments opened in 2017 within walking distance of downtown.

As the appearance of the town has changed, so have its residents. Today’s Duluthians have brought more diversity to the city in the past 20 to 30 years. But a few of the descendants of old Duluth remain.

Kathryn Parsons Willis, a longtime resident of Duluth with a personal connection to its founding, at the city's fall festival about five years ago with former state rep. Brooks Coleman Jr. Willis continues to help organize the festival each year, with the first one occurring in 1983. (Courtesy of Kathryn Parsons Willis)

Credit: City of Duluth

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Credit: City of Duluth

Willis’ family planted its roots in Duluth at the beginning of its history. Her great, great, great grandfather, Evan Howell, founded the city in 1821 under the name Howell Crossing.

Decades later, U.S. Congress financed a bill to construct railroad tracks from Howell Crossing to Duluth, Minnesota. The original founder’s grandson, Evan P. Howell, changed the name of the Gwinnett town to Duluth in 1873 after a representative made fun of the Minnesota town’s name.

Coming of age during the 1930s and 1940s, Willis worked in her family’s Parsons General Store. Willis recalled the city didn’t get its third paved road until residents rallied together to build Gwinnett County’s first hospital, Joan Glancy Hospital, which opened in the city in 1944.

By 1970, Duluth’s population started to significantly grow as people moved to the area for jobs. The population swelled from 842 residents in 1950 to 1,810 residents in 1970, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Nevertheless, Duluth remained so rural that throughout her youth Mayor Nancy Harris could still ride her horse or a tractor down Ga. 120. That ride would be impossible now, as Ga. 120 has four lanes before it intersects busy Buford Highway.

Duluth’s population has swelled to almost 30,000 today, accounting for about 3% of Gwinnett’s 936,250 residents, according to 2019 U.S. Census data. Gwinnett County expects to reach 1.3 million residents by 2040.

When Harris became mayor in 2007, she ran on a platform of “historical redevelopment,” hoping to stop the then Council’s plan to demolish some of the city’s old buildings while still allowing for growth.

Maple Street Biscuit Company now operates in one of the buildings Harris convinced the city to salvage. A former Baptist church constructed in 1947, the original structure burned down to the ground after being struck by lightning. It later served as Duluth City Hall until the city moved into its new location by the Town Green in 2008. As the only other historic building repurposed in Parsons Alley, The Chocolaterie Luxury Chocolates now resides inside the former location of the historic Bank of Duluth with the original bank vault still inside.

The redevelopment across downtown Duluth occurred under Harris’ watch, in which the city used a tax allocation district to cover redevelopment costs and purchased land cheapened by the 2008 economic recession, breathing new life into the downtown area.

“Fourteen years ago, we had a dead downtown with three consignment stores and a Big Lots across the street,” Harris said. “That’s how quickly all of this happened.”

But it didn’t come without convincing initially hesitant longtime residents that Duluth needed a makeover.

“The people that had lived in Duluth all their lives were not open to change. ‘It was a small town; we like it that way.’ I heard a lot of that,” Harris said. “The good thing about me being a native Duluthian was I looked at these people and knew their names. I could say, ‘I loved Duluth, too, but those days are gone. And if we don’t do something, we’re going to dry up.’”

New faces, new development

As Duluth continued to expand, its new residents required city officials to reconcile cultural differences.

After penalizing three Korean-owned restaurants that were serving alcohol illegally, the city realized the owners unknowingly broke the law due to cultural differences: Placing an unopened bottle of alcohol on diners’ tables is standard practice in some countries, McGahee said. Duluth now requires business owners to complete an alcohol training course.

To embrace the town’s newfound diversity, Harris organized festivals to celebrate individual racial and ethnic groups. This led to unhappy residents, who felt they were “locked out” of the city for the entire day, Harris said.

The city now only hosts multicultural events to bring together individuals from all backgrounds, Harris said. “I want to be known as a very diverse city that gets along, where we listen to each other,” she said.

After opening the Duluth location of Dreamland BBQ, Clark said he experienced a surge in Duluthians of Korean descent interested in trying his American-style barbecue.

“It is a great melting pot of old and new,” said Clark, now retired from a management position at the restaurant’s Birmingham location. “(The diversity) brings so much culture. I think that’s what great about Duluth, is that you can look at it through so many people’s eyes and they see some way that they’re connected to it.”

Duluth City Council recently expanded its urban redevelopment area hoping to restore dilapidated buildings and infrastructure in the area with a focus on creating a “live, work, play” environment for its residents, McGahee said.

At the corner of Main and Hardy streets, the city hopes to shelve books in its new Gwinnett County library by early summer. The city expects the Courtyard by Marriott Hotel on Hill Street to welcome its first guests in June, completing a decades-long goal of adding a hotel to the downtown area. An adjoining parking garage will allow both hotel guests and the general public to park near downtown.

Outside of the District at Duluth apartments, most downtown redevelopment occurred on the Main Street side of the railroad tracks. Now, the city is considering acquiring land and building up the other side of the railroad tracks by Buford Highway, Harris said.

There are more than 20 residential and commercial projects either underway or under review by planners. Among several new housing developments, work has begun replace an old strip center and warehouses at the corner of Buford Highway and Davenport Road with two apartment complexes on either side, one with about 250 units and the other with about 180 units.

“I’ve always loved change,” Harris said. “I get emotional when I see these great projects that want to come to my hometown. Change is inevitable. I just roll with the punches.”