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With Duluth’s Park Point, Kathy Cargill Crossed the Billionaire PR Precipice

The antisocial behavior of elites usually feels abstract—until it gets personal.

Facebook: McLaren Brasil|

Kathy Cargill, seen here putting the CAR in Cargill.

Ten years ago I was cruising around a ranch outside of Sheridan, Wyoming, sipping midday Coors Lights with two buddies and a Sam Elliott-like figure named Hardy, who happened to be an honest-to-god cowboy. At one point Hardy, an old family friend to one of those guys, gestured toward the rolling Bighorn Mountains and started rattling off surnames.

"Estée Lauder family owns that one," he said, pointing toward a rocky peak. "Hewlett-Packard family owns that one."

So on, so forth.

It seemed to make perfect sense. Of course the heirs to a cosmetics dynasty own vacation acreage so vast it envelops an entire mountain. With wealth that's ostensibly infinite, these families can and do pluck up parcels with impunity, creating their own self-isolating playgrounds as if it's the natural order of things; the Emmerson family (lumber fortune), John Malone (cable TV), and Ted Turner (media) each own in excess of 2 million acres, per the annual tally from Land Report.

But not all parcels are created equal, and not all land-grabs are executed with the tact and ease expected from older money.

Kathy Cargill is learning this the hard way. As a married-in heir to Minnesota's stupefyingly rich Cargill family, owners of the largest private company in the U.S., she’s likely used to getting whatever she wants. Like, say, a collection of McLaren sports cars she describes as "drivable art." Over the past year, however, Cargill's blue-blood appetites and screaming lack of self-awareness have crashed together in Duluth, accomplishing something from which her family's agribusiness empire has been largely shielded for 150+ years: wide-scale embarrassment.

Before the Cargill PR blunder on Park Point made headlines in the Wall Street Journal and New York Post, it began percolating in the pages of the Duluth News Tribune. Last December, Jimmy Lovrien was the first reporter to draw attention to Cargill's LLC, North Shore LS, acquiring single-family homes for well over their appraised values along Park Point—the world's longest freshwater sandbar, jutting seven miles into Lake Superior from downtown Duluth—and then razing each one without public explanation. The hoard would eventually top 20 properties in the small, dense, historic community. That DNT article featured a Cargill charm offensive, wherein she threatened to sue the hometown newspaper and stated, “The homes that we bought were pieces of crap. I couldn’t imagine living in any of them.” (Cargill could very much imagine living in this Park Point mansion, which she bought in 2021 for $2.5 million.)

Unsurprisingly, locals had some concerns: What the hell is this seemingly hostile lady up to?

The deference extended to Cargill speaks to, well, a lot of things. Her neighbors expressed a surplus of Midwestern good-heartedness in the press frenzy that ramped up this year; many of them welcomed Cargill while expressing apprehensions about her secretiveness. “I think Kathy Cargill is a well-meaning lady. I have faith that they are going to do the right thing... No way it’s going to be some McMansion," said 71-year-old Dan O’Neill, a retired union organizer who unloaded his home to Cargill's LLC. Few of them, it seems, operate from the gut-level assumption that's increasingly common among younger generations: Billionaires are net negatives for society. Furious Duluthians on social media, on the other hand, appear far less charitable than the Park Point residents quoted in the press.

As folks grew more and more anxious, Duluth Mayor Roger Reinert felt compelled to step in two weeks ago. He told Facebook followers that he had sent Cargill a letter inquiring about her plans, though he received no response. "Communicating intent to the city and our neighbors would go a long way in easing minds," he wrote, adding that while it's perfectly legal for Cargill to snatch homes, Park Pointers don't have to sell. "PARKS will remain PARKS, and no matter who owns the adjacent properties the beach WILL REMAIN PUBLIC!"

At this point in our saga, Cargill’s only public comment had been to insult her neighborhood and threaten the Duluth News Tribune (Lovrien tells us she never followed through with legal action). The Star Tribune couldn't get a quote; the mayor couldn't get a response.

That all changed over the weekend when the Wall Street Journal published its account of the drama unfolding along Lake Superior. Cargill revealed she had privately schemed to build houses for family members, create "small-scale" natural spaces, throw cash at area parks, and erect a pickleball/basketball/hockey complex. Accept the stated plan with as much credulousness as you think it deserves. I'm no crisis comms pro, but it doesn't seem like Cargill could've dug a deeper PR grave if she’d tried, with quotes like...

  • “I think an expression that we all know—don’t pee in your Cheerios—well, [Mayor Reinert] kind of peed in his Cheerios right there, and definitely I’m not going to do anything to benefit that community." [Cargill must be half-remembering the line "So who peed in your Cheerios?" from the 1987 film Wall Street, whose most famous line she seems to have taken to heart.]
  • “The good plans that I have down there for beautifying, updating and fixing up Park Point park or putting up that sports court, forget it. There’s another community out there with more welcoming people than that small-minded community."
  • “We’re going to make it even more private than it is, and we’re still going to go enjoy it. Those people aren’t running me out. They can posture themselves all they want, but I’m not going anywhere.”

How neighborly!

Cargill’s entitlement and contempt has generated a rare—and maybe even beautiful?—internet phenomenon. From the WSJ comment section to the Strib's, sentiments like "Kathy Cargill needs to learn some manners" and other much more strongly worded takes along those lines are winning a near-consensus. And that's remarkable, because, as stressed above, billionaires gobbling up real estate is as natural as the tides. But the mega-rich typically understand the monkey-paw curse that comes with unconscionable wealth: You operate in a space-alien social strata, disconnected from humanity, unable to live among or relate to other people.

That's why they buy actual mountains in Wyoming, high-rise penthouses in Manhattan, $20 million Malibu beach fronts.

Kathy Cargill had every legal right to carve up a tight-knit community in a city of 86,000 and execute her privately owned vision for Park Point. And, as she vowed to the WSJ, she’s going to do something with those large swathes of lakeside land. She just apparently never considered the social consequences because, in her rarified economic class, there's a titanic chasm between the day-to-day concerns of Duluthians and a world where six-figure McLarens are snapped up like packs of gum.

Cargill's public relations faceplant rings with international volume because of her sneering disregard for everyone in proximity to her 20-ish Park Point addresses. Cargill, the company, being labeled "evil" and "the worst company in the world" for decade-spanning allegations of squashing labor, killing family farms, and sprawling deforestation? Hardly gets any play—ask if your aunts and uncles know about any of that over Easter.

But ask 'em their thoughts on Kathy Cargill, at this moment the most infamous member of her famous family? You'll get an earful.

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