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Labovitz Awards: 'Under Ness’ leadership, Duluth has triumphed'

Duluth Mayor Don Ness smiles at Elaine Hansen, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Economic Development. Ness was the recipient of the agency’s Business Person of the Year Award, which is part of the of the annual Joel Labovitz Entrepreneurial Success Awards. (Naomi Yaeger / Budgeteer News)1 / 6
Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner-Solon (right) presented the Entrepreneurial Vision award to the owners of Bent Paddle Brewing Co. They are: (left to right) Bryon Tonnis, Karen Tonnis, Colin Mullen and Laura Mullen. “Duluth has been an unbelievably great place to grow a business,” Laura said. (Naomi Yaeger / Budgeteer News)2 / 6
Tony Sertich commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board presented the Micro-Entrepreneur Award to Dan Neff of Lake Superior Art Glass. (Naomi Yaeger / Budgeteer News)3 / 6
Gerry Goldfarb of the Lion Hotel Group presented Phillip Powers of Lake Superior Consulting with the Established Entrepreneur Award. The Lion Hotel Group, which owns the Duluth Holiday Inn and Suites, is part of of Labovitz Enterprises. (Naomi Yaeger / Budgeteer News)4 / 6
Dale Lewis, president of Park State Bank and Budgeteer columnist presented Rebecca Spengler with the Environmentally Engaged Entrepreneur Award. Spengler owns A Laundry Room, Inc. in Ely. Her Laundromat features a solar thermal hot water system. Originally a coin-operated laundromat, her business now includes commercial sheet services for healthcare facilities and 14 resorts. (Naomi Yaeger / Budgeteer News)5 / 6
Phillip Powers is the president of Lake Superior Consulting and won the Established Entrepreneur Award. The company is an engineering and service company for energy industries and employs about 300 people at four location nationwide. Powers said that he had all the qualities of an engineer “except a strong aversion to risk,” which he attributed to his ability to be successful in business. (Naomi Yaeger / Budgeteer News)6 / 6

In a surprise move, Duluth Mayor Don Ness was named the region’s Business Person of the Year at the annual Joel Labovitz Entrepreneurial Success Awards on April 23.

Ness joins the ranks of Jeno Paulucci, Al Amatuzio, Rob Link and other business greats who have received the honor during the past 44 years from UMD’s Labovitz School of Business and Economics.

Ness — who graduated from the University of Minnesota Duluth business school in 1997 and has been mayor since 2008 — isn’t a businessman.

So, Dean Amy Hietapelto was referring to the city when she described Ness as the CEO of a $250 million organization who’s made difficult business decisions while acting with personal integrity and ethically.

When she revealed the winner, Ness, 40, received a standing ovation by the 400 people gathered at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center for the annual luncheon.

“He’s done an excellent job,” noted Tom Simonson of North Shore Bank. “He’s made some hard decisions but good decisions for the community, and we’re proud of him.”

Ness said it was an unlikely award for a pastor’s kid who was shy and uncharismatic growing up. He joked whether “some kind of giant mistake had been made.” But he went on to attribute his success in fostering business in Duluth to putting the city first, building a good team and having a supportive family.

“So, in short, the award is more about all of you than it is about me,” he told the gathering. “I’m a convenient proxy for everything good happening in Duluth.”

The honor comes after Ness and Duluth received national media coverage and just months after the Twin Cities Business magazine named Ness last year’s Person of the Year.

“Under Ness’ leadership, Duluth has triumphed over dire challenges and come through the Great Recession — and a severe 2012 flood — with prospects brighter than it’s seen in several decades,” the magazine said.

Those kudos from national and Twin Cities media wasn’t the reason Ness was chosen this year, Hietapelto said after the event.

“While he’s received recognition throughout Minnesota for what he’s done for Duluth and Northern Minnesota, it’s been a culmination of his efforts that’s bringing him recognition at this point in time,” she said. “And Duluth is poised to do more.”

According to the business school, Ness’ accomplishments in the last year include: reducing the city’s unfunded health care liability; supporting partnerships with private sector businesses to grow jobs; encouraging development and investment in the city; reducing the general fund and increasing the budget reserve; and creating the first unified development code in 50 years.

Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon, who participated in the awards event, thought Ness was a creative choice and the best one possible.

“He has done a wonderful job turning the city around to being fiscally responsible, and the city is beginning to thrive,” she said.

She noted that more young people are staying in Duluth now rather than moving away. And, borrowing business jargon, she added, “I like his business plan.”

Prettner Solon took special pleasure in the choice of Ness since she recruited him to run for her Duluth City Council seat in 1999 and sees him as her protégé.

“He’s a remarkable young man to watch, and he’s going places,” she said.

Labovitz Entrepreneurial Success Awards

During the 22nd annual Joel Labovitz entrepreneurial awards luncheon held at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center on Wednesday, the following winning businesses were chosen from among 42 nominees in the Twin Ports and Northeastern Minnesota:

  • Micro-Entrepreneur: Lake Superior Art Glass, Dan Neff, Duluth.
  • Emerging Entrepreneur: Laurentian Monument Granite and Stone, Kandi and Mark Sutich, Virginia.
  • Established Entrepreneur: Lake Superior Consulting, LLC, Phillip Powers, Duluth.
  • Mature Entrepreneur: Zup’s Market, Edward J. Zupancich, Babbitt.
  • Environmentally Engaged Entrepreneur: A Laundry Room, Inc., Rebecca Spengler, Ely.
  • Entrepreneurial Leadership: Kelly Klun.
  • Entrepreneurial Vision: Bent Paddle Brewing Co., Duluth.