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Duluth marks year without hub of synthetic drug activity

A long line of people looking to purchase synthetic drugs queues up in front of the Last Place on Earth head shop in downtown Duluth in this Sept. 15, 2011, file photo. Forums News Service file photo

DULUTH, Minn. – Mark Fredrickson is a much happier person these days.

The co-owner of ShelDon printing company on East Superior Street, Fredrickson feels the war on synthetic drugs in downtown Duluth has been won. After years of fighting what he describes as “true urban decay,” Fredrickson recently put about $10,000 worth of long-overdue improvements into his storefront.

“This is the best part of downtown, by far,” Fredrickson said from his office last week.

“The restaurants in the area are full. Normal people are on the streets, rather than a bunch of addicts. Tourists are walking the streets,” he said. “Things are great here.”

It’s been a year since Fredrickson has seen a line of customers snarl out the door of the Last Place on Earth, a controversial head shop that drew the ire of business owners, police and politicians over its sale of synthetic drugs. The store closed July 19, 2013, by a judge’s order and against owner Jim Carlson’s wishes, and hasn’t reopened since.

As Carlson waits behind bars to be sentenced on his conviction for 51 federal crimes, business owners and community leaders are celebrating a year without the Last Place on Earth, and are already thinking about how the building, which will soon be forfeited to the federal government, can be part of the revitalization of Old Downtown.

But Carlson and his legal team still vow to fight on, insisting that he will soon be out of jail and that the building will be back in his hands.

All sides seem to agree that the sale of synthetic drugs in downtown Duluth is a thing of the past. But the future of the now-vacant storefront probably won’t be clear anytime soon, as the legal battle rages on.

A year’s difference

Dr. Chris Delp, an emergency room physician at St. Luke’s hospital in Duluth, has vivid memories of the day the Last Place on Earth shut down.

“The day it closed, a universal cheer went through every single staff member in the emergency room,” Delp said. “Everybody in that room was affected by that place.”

Delp recalled dealing with the synthetic drug craze on a daily basis, directly and indirectly. Users would come in “completely psychotic” and without “any concept of reality,” he said.

They would often inflict harm to themselves and others.

“It was such an everyday occurrence for so long,” Delp said. “Now, it’s notable when we have a synthetics case. It’s unusual enough where we talk about it when it happens.”

Delp speculated that some users may have switched to other drugs, primarily marijuana. However, “When people switch to marijuana, we don’t know about it,” because they don’t end up in the emergency room, he said.

The Duluth Police Department has enjoyed the synthetic drug hiatus. At the height of the business’ popularity, Carlson was forced to pay for the presence of two police officers on the block during his hours of operation.

An analysis of police calls conducted for the Forum News Service shows a significant drop-off in activity in the general vicinity of the store in the past year.

Overall, calls to the store, surrounding blocks and Lake Place Park dropped by 27 percent. Drug calls dropped 78 percent, and fight calls are down 49 percent.

“Having that business closed has changed the way I go to work,” said Lt. Eric Rish, the department’s east area patrol commander. “It’s so refreshing not to have that issue weighing on us each and every day.”

Rish said synthetics haven’t been completely expelled from the city, in part because of Internet-based sales. But the drugs have grown scarce and dispersed from what was once a well-known hub in the heart of the city.

“We’ve went to the root of the problem,” Rish said. “I think we’ve seen that the perceived, and actual, level of safety downtown has increased monumentally.”

Business booming

Duluth Mayor Don Ness says there is no question that the Last Place on Earth slowed the progress of the city’s Old Downtown revitalization effort. For years, officials have sought to bring business and development to the area, but the store made that a hard thing to do, he said.

“It was a multi-faceted problem on top of existing challenges,” Ness said. “And it served to, unfortunately, distract us from those other challenges. The removal of that significant problem allows us to now refocus on other pressing matters.”

Old Downtown’s signature project, the renovation of the NorShor Theatre, likely would have happened sooner if not for the Last Place on Earth, Ness said. The project was awarded $6.95 million by the state Legislature this year, and work is expected to begin soon.

Despite the well-documented struggles of the Last Place on Earth block, Rod Raymond opened Tycoons Alehouse just a few doors down from the head shop. That was 2½ years ago, and he admits that business was a little slow at first.

“Immediately after the Last Place on Earth closed, we saw more customers,” he said. “The overall vibe of the area has seen a renaissance since that’s been done. And we’re excited for more good stuff to come.”

Kristi Stokes, president of the Greater Downtown Council, said more business is likely to come to the area. Several businesses have opened in or relocated to the area in the past year.

“We’ve had businesses come to us and say that they are wanting to move into downtown,” she said. “They want to be in Old Downtown, in the entertainment district.”

Ness said it would be hard to understate the significance of Carlson’s federal trial, where a Minneapolis jury found him guilty of violating a slew of drug, labeling and money laundering laws.

“After something like this is done, it’s easy to just wash it out of your memory,” Ness said. “But I don’t think there’s any question that the fate of downtown, and certainly of Old Downtown, was at stake in that court case. Thank goodness we prevailed, because the consequences if he would’ve been able to continue to sell would’ve been devastating.”

Building’s future


When Jim Carlson is sentenced in federal court Aug. 14, he will officially forfeit the Last Place on Earth building, along with some $4.5 million in cash and other assets. U.S. marshals have already moved into the building, removing many of the store’s distinctive signs.

But the effort to erase the memories of the building and put it to a new use will prove to be complicated, community leaders say. Before that process can even begin, Carlson must exhaust all of his legal options, which could take well over a year.

The building could be turned over to a local government agency, but with some conditions. It would have to be used in relation to the purpose it was seized – such as a law enforcement or drug treatment center – for at least a year. Otherwise, the building would go to a public auction.

Ness, who recently got a look inside the building, said he couldn’t imagine any scenario where the city of Duluth would take over the property. He described the structure as being in “deplorable” condition.

“From the city’s perspective, we’re not looking to accumulate property,” he said. “It would take a lot of work to fix it up. Carlson did not care for that building, just as he did not care for the Duluth community.”

Raymond, also a preservationist, said an impetus should be put on saving the building, a 1908 brick structure that is sandwiched between the ShelDon and Lake Place buildings.

“I’m really excited that people aren’t blaming the historic old building – it’s not at fault,” Raymond said. “I hope we can explore the possibility of saving that building. It’s important for that row of old buildings. There’s a lot of meaningful history there.”

Fredrickson, the ShelDon owner, said he hopes another business can take advantage of the storefront.

“Whoever buys it is going to have to put money into it to bring it up to respectable condition,” he said. “But, based on the activity going on around us, I’d say it could be a pretty good investment.”

But Carlson’s attorney, Randall Tigue, expects the early discussions about the building’s future to become moot. Tigue has vowed to appeal the case immediately after Carlson is sentenced, and asserts that the appellate court will see things his way.

“I think what’s going to happen is he’s going to get the building back,” Tigue predicted. “But it won’t be accomplished short of getting the convictions overturned.”