The Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce resumed its annual meeting Thursday night at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center with its new president, Matt Baumgartner, at the helm.

The 151st annual meeting and dinner resumed after last year’s program was impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The meeting was also streamed virtually.

“I felt inspired coming into this event tonight because we were actually able to get back together in person,” Baumgartner said. “And I felt energized coming into tonight because of everything I’m seeing and hearing in this community.”

Baumgartner began his role as president in July, following David Ross, who retired from the position after 24 years. Former board chair Karen Stromme said Baumgartner has already excelled at taking the time to listen to businesses about what they need from the chamber.

“The chamber transitioned leadership from the board shoulders of David Ross to a man of influence in our Duluth community, Matt Baumgartner," Stromme said. "Matt seems to have been born for this position. For him, becoming the chamber president is not a position or a title, but it will be through thoughtful action and example.”

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Daniel Fanning, the chamber’s new board chair, said there are key initiatives the chamber needs to focus on to strengthen the Duluth business community and community at large, including downtown safety, workforce development and making sure Duluth is regarded as business-friendly.

“We’re at that weird point where we want to celebrate good things that are happening but be mindful of challenges that still exist,” Fanning said.

Baumgartner also noted challenges, including the need for equity and inclusion, housing and childcare and the impacts of the pandemic. He spoke of optimism of the resilience and progress that is to come, stating that Duluth is a city with “opportunities like no other city in Minnesota, and maybe the Midwest.”

“I’m inspired and I feel so fortunate to be able to work for the organization that can lead that change,” Baumgartner said. “We’re the intersection of business, community, economy and leadership. No other organization is more poised to lead that change.”

Despite the vast challenges businesses and the community have faced in the last two years, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson highlighted many successes of 2021. Tourism tax collections are expected to surpass the $14 million collected at the end of 2019. The city invested in 137 businesses since the 2019 annual meeting, and so far in 2021 there has been $497 million in construction permit valuations.

Larson said at this same time in 2019, there was $170 million in valuations, and credited projects like Essentia Health's Vision Northland project, Costco and and other health care projects, plus more than 75 other projects forecasted to be completed by 2023.

According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, the Duluth metropolitan statistical area has recovered 78% of jobs lost during the pandemic.

Essentia Chief Executive Officer David Herman delivered the keynote speech, addressing the need for Essentia and Duluth to keep up with the rapidly evolving health care industry. In order to do that, Essentia is investing more than $930 million for health care in the region, including at Vision Northland in downtown Duluth, at the Miller Hill Mall and in Hermantown and Cloquet.

“It really demonstrates our commitment to our community’s economic vitality, to our colleagues’ work environment and to the trades and other people here in the Northland,” Herman said.

Herman also stressed the importance of attracting and retaining talented workers, boosting the Central Hillside neighborhood and regional economy to grow Duluth’s population and opportunities.

Health care workers received a standing ovation from meeting attendees for their dedication to working on the front lines of the pandemic.

The following award recipients were recognized at the annual meeting:

  • Fuse Duluth Young Professional of the Year: Colleen Smith, Vista Fleet.

  • Volunteer of the Year: Daniel Fanning, Lake Superior College.

  • Ambassador of the Year: Hannah Stevens, Wheeler Associates.