Last stop for Last Place? Carlson’s store on feds’ listThe U.S. Attorney’s Office has gone to federal court seeking the forfeiture of the Superior Street building that houses the now-closed head shop, the Last Place on Earth.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has gone to federal court seeking the forfeiture of the Superior Street building that houses the now-closed head shop, the Last Place on Earth.
It’s just one of the assets federal authorities aim to seize from its owner, Jim Carlson, after his recent conviction on multiple charges related to the sale of synthetic drug products from the Duluth storefront. It’s the latest development in a long-running dispute over the property since Carlson began selling synthetics there more than three years ago.
Randall Tigue, Carlson’s attorney, told the News Tribune on Friday that he will respond to the government’s request for assets, including the building at 120 E. Superior St., within an allowed 10-day period. He would not comment further as he works to prepare motions for a new trial for Carlson.
Yet if the feds succeed in their efforts to wrest control of the building from Carlson, no neighbor will shed a tear, predicts Mark Fredrickson, owner of the ShelDon sign, banner and printing company next door to the Last Place on Earth.
“As far as I’m concerned, he deserves everything he gets,” Fredrickson said of Carlson. “In my mind, he’s no better than someone who pours toxic pollution into a river.”
If the head shop closes for good and a new owner takes possession of the building, Fredrickson said he’s prepared to invest in sprucing up his own property. He expects others in the 100 block of East Superior Street to do the same.
Fredrickson said Carlson’s traffic in synthetic drugs and the problem behaviors it attracted to the neighborhood deterred investment.
“It’s been holding back everything. How can you hope for a decent return on investment when you’re next door to something like that?” he asked. “You’d have been a fool to make any significant investment.”
Several other business owners share Fredrickson’s hunger to see the Last Place on Earth building under new ownership, said Kristi Stokes, president of Duluth’s Greater Downtown Council.
“It would be very positive to see some fresh ownership and some new life put into that building,” Stokes said.
Fredrickson said that the head shop and the clientele it attracted dragged down the value of other buildings on the block. He noted that when he refinanced a loan 1½ years ago, the appraised value of the building was determined to be $50,000 lower than he had paid when he bought it in 2007.
Records on the city assessor’s website and the independent Lexis-Nexis database bear that out, showing that property assessed at $690,000 in 2007 and fell to $623,400 in 2012 and today.
Conversely, those records show Carlson’s property — at 8,625 square feet, a bit smaller than Frederickson’s 11,500 square feet — appreciating greatly during the same time. It went from an assessed value of $74,200 in 2007 to $240,600 in 2009, dropping two years later to $228,600, where it remains. The last purchase price was recorded as $62,000 in June 1996.
Both the ShelDon building and the Last Place on Earth property were built in 1908.
While the jump in value of Carlson’s building may seem dramatic, such increases aren’t out of the ordinary and may be due to assessors having to catch up with a backlog of properties.
“We reassess properties every year. We physically have to go out and reinspect every five years,” said Cory Leinwander, an assistant county assessor for St. Louis County. “With the city assessor merging with the county assessor’s office, the reinspection of all the properties in the city of Duluth has not been on that cycle. We are currently on that cycle.”
Prosecutors are seeking about $6.5 million that Carlson made from the sale of the products. Federal agents seized about $3 million in cash, vehicles and merchandise from Carlson during a raid at the shop in July 2012 and now want him to turn over other assets to make up the difference, including a vacation property that he owns in Mexico.
Exactly what will become of the Superior Street building, whose upstairs windows have been boarded up and decorated with silhouettes for years, remains unclear as the case against Carlson wends its way through the courts. But Duluth City Councilor Sharla Gardner, whose district includes downtown Duluth, said she was encouraged by the increasingly likely prospect of new ownership; possibly even involving a reversion of control to the city.
“No one wants to count their chickens yet. We’ll have to wait and see what happens. But I know that people are already talking about fixing up the area,” she said.
In the past couple of months, since the head shop was forced to close, Gardner said she has already seen a difference.
“That block has been a blight on the downtown for several years, and not having that kind of business with people who were buying such a harmful and destructive product has already made people feel a lot more comfortable,” she said.
Gardner said many pedestrians and some of the elderly residents of Greysolon Plaza had come to avoid the area, including Lake Place, a local park that became a popular spot for the head shop’s customers to hang out and often publicly consume synthetic drugs.
“Lake Place was where a lot of seniors used to go to walk and get their exercise. People used to enjoy having lunch down there, but they’d become afraid to go there,” Gardner said. “Well, now that the Last Place on Earth has closed they’re starting to reclaim that space.”
A survey released earlier this month by the Greater Downtown Council found that local businesses, property owners and workers view downtown Duluth as safer and more appealing in recent months, in part because of the closure of Last Place on Earth.
Duluth Mayor Don Ness said he sees great potential for the area without the throngs of people drawn to buy synthetic drugs there in the past.
“What we’ve seen over the past decade in our Old Downtown is a tremendous amount of private investment and revitalization,” he said. “If you go a block to the west or a block to the east, you see the level of commitment and optimism and investment in this area. That’s one of the things that has been so frustrating about the sale of synthetic drugs at the Last Place on Earth was that it was taking away from this positive momentum we were seeing.”
Ness pointed to redevelopments such as Tycoons, the Sheraton Hotel, the Wieland Building, the Zeitgeist Arts Center and Technology Village as examples.
“We had this tremendous amount of momentum and a lot of private investment in this neighborhood, and then with the problems associated with the sale of synthetic drugs in the area, it kind of put everything on hold. There was a reluctance to make that further investment. There was a reluctance for retail operators to take these storefronts. I think once we get to the place where there’s confidence that this is permanent and that we won’t be seeing those problems going forward, we’ll see the optimism and investment continue,” he said.
Ness expects two large projects now in the works could prove a new catalyst for reinvestment in the neighborhood.
“Over the next two years, we’re going to see the NorShor Theatre and the old Lange Motors building renovated and made a vital part of this area, and I think it only makes sense that the lower side of the 100 block of East Superior Street will also start to see that same revitalization,” he said.
News Tribune staffers Robin Washington and Mike Creger contributed to this report.