For years, the numbers had been tossed around as fact. Each claimed to be an accurate accounting of the office vacancy rate in downtown Duluth.

This year, it's 15 percent to 16 percent. In 2008, it was 12 percent. In 2001, up to 20 percent. In the late 1980s to mid-1990s, 10 percent.

Trouble is, there was never data to back up those claims. All were estimates, speculation based on the experiences of brokers and property managers.

"The market has never done a good job of measuring that," noted Dave Holappa of Holappa Commercial Real Estate. "People from other markets will call, asking for it."

While the number may not seem to matter if you're not looking for space, it's critical data for economic development. And it's needed information for businesses considering coming to Duluth.

"We're often asked about it," said Kristi Stokes, president of the Greater Downtown Council. "It's good for us to know where we are in the community and to share this. It's real beneficial to show the trends when you're going after business and trying to sell vacancies."

Such market data reports are done regularly in the Twin Cities. Indeed, the reports are standard in all the major markets in the country.

Soon they will be available in Duluth.

Kathy Marinac, president of Building Owners and Managers Association in Duluth, is leading an effort to establish that market information in Duluth. Teaming with Northland Connection and the Greater Downtown Council, a building inventory is underway that will lead to data on occupancy rates. The market reports will provide more credibility.

That will need the cooperation of building owners and commercial real estate brokers, which Marinac expects to get.

A preliminary market report should be out by summer. The data will be updated regularly on northlandconnection.com, a regional economic development Web site. In time, the team expects to expand the report to include Miller Hill Mall area and the rest of Duluth and Superior, Cloquet and Proctor, encompassing both commercial and industrial space. They also are working with the Minnesota Commercial Association of Realtors to make the information available statewide.

"It's important," Maddy said of the statistics. "When we throw out numbers like that, we do a disservice to the community, when really we don't know what it is. We need to be current, accurate and effective with the informaton. What's the value, when we go out there and say we think it is this?"

The more informal approach was sufficient for years, says Steve LaFlamme, president of Oneida Realty which probably has had the best handle on the vacancy levels in Duluth over the years.

"Things have changed." he said. "People would call you directly when they were looking for space. Now it's done by brokers. From the local perspective, [the rates] don't mean a lot."

Regarding the estimated 15 percent office vacancy rate in Duluth, Marinac said there's room for improvement, but it's not "horrible."

Downtown St. Paul is seeing a 20.3 percent vacancy rate, while downtown Minneapolis has nearly 17 percent, noted Marinac, who is the property and leasing manager for A&L Properties.

"So when we compare ourselves to large markets, we are doing better," she said. "And we're all feeling an uptick here, a lot more activity happening in 2010 compared to a year ago."

They'll soon know if they're right.