Business Leaders Urge Financially Strapped Duluth Convention Center and Tourism Office to Merge

The Duluth Entertainment Convention Center and Visit Duluth tourism office face a financial crisis from a steep decline in revenue from the city’s depleted tourism tax collections due to the pandemic. But some business leaders on the DECC board view the downturn as an opportunity to do something that perhaps needed doing long before, according to the Duluth News Tribune.

DECC board member and Bent Paddle Brewing Co. co-founder Laura Mullen sees much promise in combining operations with Visit Duluth and noted that many other convention centers across the nation also handle destination marketing for their communities, as well.

“It just seems like a natural thing that Duluth should get onboard with,” she said.

Karen Pionk, DECC board president and general manager of the Sheraton Duluth Hotel, pointed to the success other communities have had with similar business models. She recently read a report from a convention bureau in Little Rock, Arkansas, and described the sense of excitement she felt at the prospect of following suit.

“What they present and how they’ve done it is amazing. You can see growth — continuous — and you can see how things are deployed and the benefits,” she said.

The executives’ plan for streamlining the two financially shaky organizations into a single entity ran into opposition from the former head of the city’s bureaucracy, ex-mayor Dan Ness, now a DECC board member.

“I question whether or not we as a board have had adequate time to really consider: What does this mean to take on this scope of responsibility? Because essentially what we’re being asked to do is, as the umbrella organization for this potential merger, is take on the destination marketing for the greater Duluth area,” Ness said.

“Especially now, while we’re in crisis, we don’t have the capacity, I don’t think, to take that on and to do so responsibly,” he [Ness] said.

Ness suggested putting off the proposed merger in order to conduct a study of the ramifications. But Duluth chief administrative officer Noah Schuchman provided a reality check, noting a decision one way or another has to be made this month, not next year, in order to best utilize taxpayer dollars.

Schuchman said he remains convinced a merger “does feel like the right move and the right way to use public resources that are limited and that we do need to get as much as possible out of.”

In the end, the board meeting provided a window into the difference a private sector approach can potentially make in meeting public sector challenges.

As for the timing, Mullen said she sees “opportunity in the pandemic, in that there is inherent downtime right now with staff.”

“I know I have it at Bent Paddle,” she said. “There’s just less going on in your day-to-day world, and because of the nature of the DECC and Visit Duluth there are fewer conventions. There is less moving around of people. So, it might be the perfect opportunity to engage something like this.”

A final decision will likely come at the next DECC board meeting on December 30.