June 30, 1998 The crowd attending the groundbreaking ceremony for the Great Lakes Aquarium watches the wrecking ball hit the former Flame Restaurant on Monday morning (June 29). Mayor Gary Doty was at the controls and hit the building twice with the 8,200-pound ball. The actual demolition of the building will begin today. (Bob King / News Tribune) FLAME’S OUT; AQUARIUM TO RISE WRECKING BALL LATEST STEP IN BAYFRONT DEVELOPMENT’S EVOLUTION
June 30, 1998
The crowd attending the groundbreaking ceremony for the Great Lakes Aquarium watches the wrecking ball hit the former Flame Restaurant on Monday morning (June 29). Mayor Gary Doty was at the controls and hit the building twice with the 8,200-pound ball. The actual demolition of the building will begin today. (Bob King / News Tribune)
FLAME’S OUT; AQUARIUM TO RISE
WRECKING BALL LATEST STEP IN BAYFRONT DEVELOPMENT’S EVOLUTION
After a decade as an idea and subject of debate, the Great Lakes Aquarium began moving toward concrete form on Monday.
As a wrecking ball slammed through the brick wall of the former Flame Restaurant building at Fifth Avenue West and the Duluth Harbor, civic leaders celebrated the imminent construction on the site of the proposed aquarium and exhibit hall.
Duluth Mayor Gary Doty slid the lever to release the wrecking ball, making literal government’s role in reshaping the bayfront to solidify Duluth’s tourist economy.
State funds of $16 million and city funds of $11 million are going into the project, along with $6 million in private contributions. Backers hope to attract more than 280,000 visitors a year with the result, an exhibition of freshwater ecologies around the world featuring live otters, five large fish tanks, 22 smaller ones and interactive exhibits.
"The proper development of the bayfront area has been a priority of my administration. Lake Superior Center has a been longstanding dream for many of us to be a cornerstone of that devlopment," Doty said. "Their work will show the world how Duluthians feel about the aquatic treasure that we have right here."
In the crowd was Terry Teich, a Lincoln Park Middle School teacher who was enthused about the potential educational value.
"If you look at what they want to do in the future, it’s going to be great, and fun," she said.
Today crews plan to start demolishing the former warehouse built in 1910 that housed the swank Flame after 1946. Crews finished work related to asbestos removal just an hour before Monday’s ceremony.
Next month the general contractor, a partnership between Johnson-Wilson Construction Management of Duluth and Adolfson & Peterson Construction of Minneapolis, will review subcontractors’ bids with the city to make sure they meet budget projections.
Then comes 18 months of construction, with opening projected for late 1999.
The $30 million project will be the most noticeable makeover of the downtown waterfront since the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center was expanded in 1990. It will be the first major enhancement on the west side of South Fifth Avenue West since that former industrial land was developed into Bayfront Park in 1987.
The Duluth aquarium will be unusual in one respect. Of 30 accredited aquariums in the United States, only one, in Chattanooga, Tenn., is themed on freshwater rather than saltwater.
The Great Lakes Aquarium happened only because local backers persisted after the prospect of federal funding dissipated.
Bayfront preservationists unveiled the aquarium idea to the public in March 1989. Local attorney and venture capitalist Nick Smith served as the first chairman of the nonprofit Lake Superior Center, whose board includes Minnesota Power executives, Duluth and Superior city officials, Lake Superior experts and representatives of the financial and medical professions.
Early plans were to open in 1994 with a sister facility in the then-Soviet Union. Organizers figured they’d get $10 million from local sources and $20 million from Congress. But then the Communist government collapsed.
"All this wonderful international connection went bye-bye," said aquarium marketing director Paula Davidson.
Left off a federal list of environmental projects, the center slashed its staff in 1992 and downsized its plans. Organizers proposed the state up its contribution to $20 million while the city share stayed at about $5 million.
The state balked, saying it would pay no more than about half of the total cost. In 1996, the state Legislature approved the last of its $16 million grant. This spring, Doty, the City Council and the Duluth Economic Development Authority agreed to augment the city’s $5.4 million grant with a $6.75 million loan.
"It has been a long time coming, and I know a lot of people thought it wouldn’t happen," said Yvonne Prettner Solon, city councilor and DEDA president.
The waiting now gives way to a flurry of activity. Lake Superior Center is scheduling a fund-raising campaign to cover operating expenses and begin repaying the city loans.
In August, crews plan to start driving more than 400 pilings 140 feet through dirt and fill into bedrock. They hope to start erecting the structure around late winter and complete it by May 1999. After exhibits are installed, work could be complete in November 1999.
The Flame Restaurant opened in 1946, and operated steadily into the 1970s. It had some ups and downs in the 1970s and 1980s before – according to the records I could find – closing for good in 1986. Here are a couple of photos of the Flame while it was in operation:
Sept. 26, 1983
The Flame Restaurant reborn — Seated at the table of the Duluth waterfront restaurant are Joann and Jerry Fischer and Joyce and Daryl Hirschel, all of the Twin Cities area. (Bob King / News-Tribune)
Feb. 11, 1985
The Flame restaurant in downtown Duluth closed today. (Bob King / News-Tribune)