Buehler, Oneida to stay on as Duluth Depot managersDuluth’s historic downtown Depot train museum and arts and history center will keep its management team after all.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
Duluth’s historic downtown Depot train museum and arts and history center will keep its management team after all.
The St. Louis County Board on Tuesday voted 6-1 to have a team of Oneida Realty real estate management and Ken Buehler, president of the nonprofit Historic Union Depot Corp., run the facility.
County administrators and Oneida will hammer out details of the contract expected to last about five years.
“It’s going to be a great summer for the Depot, and I think a great future,” a bolstered Buehler said after the vote.
The board rejected a proposal from the AtWater Group, another local property management company. AtWater owns and manages the former KDLH building on Superior Street, among others, and saw the Depot as a chance to help revitalize the area, including the possibility of adding restaurants and retail to the Depot mix.
“The Depot was one of the pieces we felt could be part of the renaissance of western downtown,” said Brian Forcier, AtWater president. “I’m still hopeful they (Oneida) will see it that way, too.”
Commissioners went against the recommendation of their staff and an advisory committee, who had picked the AtWater plan.
Commissioner Frank Jewell of Duluth, the lone dissenting vote, said the board should heed the advice of people who said the Depot could be more than it is. A study conducted for the county last year found a somewhat disorganized management system, lack of vision for new attractions, and untapped potential to increase overall attendance. The county early this year asked for new proposals to manage the Depot.
The board of the Depot Foundation also backed AtWater’s vision for the building, while several tenant organizations in the building backed Oneida and Buehler.
Commissioners stuck with Oneida and Buehler, with all seven commissioners praising the current managers’ efforts to keep the building open and vibrant after it nearly closed, unable to pay its bills, in 2005.
“This group has eight years of taking something from absolute bankruptcy … to where it is today,” said Commissioner Peg Sweeney of Proctor, saying management of the Depot is complicated because of the mix of tenants. “Arts management is an art unto itself. It’s an interesting group of tenants occupying the same space. To keep them together in harmony is absolutely amazing.”
The 120-year-old Depot — officially called the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center — houses the Duluth Art Institute, Duluth Playhouse, Duluth Children’s Museum, Lake Superior Railroad Museum, North Shore Scenic Railroad, Minnesota Ballet, St. Louis County Historical Society, Arrowhead Chorale and other groups and exhibits. It also hosts dozens of special events, from weddings and exhibits to the city’s Veterans Day event.
The county adopted the Depot nearly 40 years ago as a home for the county Historical Society. The current managers took over nearly eight years ago after the former management collapsed in bankruptcy.
Officials for both companies vying for control of the building said its eclectic mix of tenants would continue no matter who won the job.
“The organizations are the museum, not the building,” said Steve LaFlamme, president of Oneida Realty.
The Depot cost county taxpayers nearly $200,000 in 2011, paid directly from property taxes, and county officials are trying to reduce if not eliminate that subsidy. The county also footed much of the bill for a new $2.1 million roof.
Commissioner Chris Dahlberg of Duluth said the board must be careful to keep the cost to taxpayers down, but added that the decision was based on the community’s demands for arts, history and culture. Commissioner Steve Raukar of Hibbing urged county officials to stop referring to the county’s spending on the Depot as a “subsidy” and instead call it an investment in history, culture and community.
“These are core to the quality of life that people enjoy here,” Raukar said.
Under the new contract, Oneida will deal with the county, and Buehler will act as a subcontractor for Oneida. Oneida also will pay the building’s bills up front instead of the county paying and being reimbursed. The new contract is expected to include a provision calling for a local advisory board to recommend potential changes to Oneida.
“I think a lot of great ideas have surfaced in this, but the obvious issue is cost,” LaFlamme said after the vote. “I think we can start taking a look at those ideas and see where we can take this.”