New mayor faces challenges in Duluth

DULUTH - Despite a drought, traffic and an economic downturn looming before her, Mayor Nancy Harris says she is ready to lead Duluth into the future.

Harris, a retired school principal, took the gavel from Shirley Lasseter eight weeks ago, but during Wednesday's State of the City address to the Duluth Civitan Club, Lasseter passed a train conductor's cap over to the new mayor.

"As a new mayor I am working with a council that has a variety of strengths," Harris said. "My biggest challenge is to continue making Duluth a great place to live, work and play, a place to raise your kids."

Lasseter, who was mayor for 14 years before deciding against seeking re-election last year, began the train-themed speech, outlining the city's accomplishments in 2007. Those include several popular events at the Town Green, public input on studies involving parks and development, award-winning police officers and more.

"Now it's my turn to move forward full-steam ahead," Harris said. "Economic disparity is affecting every aspect of our government, but we can't derail."

Along with the creeping economy and housing crisis, economic pressures include talks under the Gold Dome about franchise fees, tax changes and tax allocation districts.

Before a crowd with several tables of Korean business owners, Harris said the city's growing and changing population creates cultural positives, but also makes communication a larger problem. She encouraged signs in English as well as the owner's native language to help emergency responders and add more customers.

The mayor said she wants to create connections between parks with bike paths and trails, which could help renew an interest in the Chattahoochee River.

With the Arena at Gwinnett Center drawing tourism to unincorporated Duluth, Harris said the city must create reasons to bring people downtown to local businesses and attractions, such as the Southeastern Railway Museum and the Red Clay Theatre.

At the end, the city's former mayor and its new leader entertained the crowd with a listing of city attributes from their first years in office to the tune of "Dueling Banjos."

When Lasseter took office 14 years ago, the 8.3-square-miles of Duluth included two parks and 9,000 residents and operated under a city budget of $4 million. But Harris takes over a 9.75-square-mile city of 27,000 people with six parks and a budget of $44 million.