Chamber president encourages Duluth to seize opportunities
During the annual chamber dinner Wednesday, President Matt Baumgartner told nearly 1,200 attendees that the time to invest in Duluth is now.
DULUTH — It was a packed house Wednesday in the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center's Lake Superior Ballroom, where nearly 1,200 people gathered for the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce's 152nd annual dinner — the first fully in-person chamber dinner held since the pandemic started.
In celebrating his first full year as president, Matt Baumgartner acknowledged the board for believing in his vision and allowing the chamber to challenge the status quo.
"That's not always easy, but I'm so excited for what we'll do in this next year," Baumgartner said.
Serving over 1,000 members, he said the chamber is among the largest in the state — working diligently to advocate for investments and policies that would benefit the entire region.
"To our stakeholders, our board of directors and to me, it was clear that we could and should be doing more," Baumgartner said. "For too long in this area, we have not allowed ourselves to think big enough. We've heard time and again from our business community that we simply have not been living up to our full potential. Too often, we've found reasons to say 'no' to projects, 'no' to development and 'no' to inclusion.
"Now, in this moment in time, we must find a way to say 'yes,'" he said. "We need to say 'yes' to tax base growth. We need to say 'yes' to population growth. We need to say 'yes, we can.'"
Rapping the podium three times, Baumgartner emphasized that opportunity is knocking at Duluth's door because there are billions of dollars pouring into Duluth — an opportunity he said can't be squandered.
"When people come here, including outside investors, they marvel at the natural beauty and amenities," he said. "They are jealous when they know our diversity of economy, including our growing health care sector, our world-class port, the advanced aviation cluster, our renowned higher education institutions. You cannot recreate what we have here, yet we are still missing out on these opportunities standing right in front of us."
He estimated Duluth has a two- to three-year window to capitalize on these opportunities.
"This is the time to invest in Duluth," he said.
In 2023, the chamber will focus on repositioning itself to build on the successes of events, programs and membership retention, to further lead on policy and advocacy.
"It should be central to our work at the chamber. Yet we have not had a person in that role for many years. I'm proud to say tonight that we not only have a person. We have the right person in that role," Baumgartner said in his introduction to Daniel Fanning, the chamber's new vice president of strategy and policy and executive director of chamber foundation.
"Our new foundation already with the work that we've been doing is the largest chamber foundation in northern Minnesota," Baumgartner added. "It will support the work and mission of our chamber, strive to improve economic opportunities, equity and improve quality of life through research, education, advocacy, participating in charitable activities and support of individuals, businesses, entrepreneurs and economic transactors."
Fanning reported on the chamber's progress in its work to streamline the permitting process in the community, in addition to its support of intricate investments such as those made in the aviation and health care industries. The chamber has also become increasingly involved in workforce causes such as childcare, broadband and housing.
The evening also showcased the chamber’s board of directors and named four award winners for their contributions to the chamber and business community.
Several business leaders were recognized for their service to the chamber:
- Ambassador of the Year — Jena Evans of the University of Minnesota Medical School Duluth campus.
- Advancing Leader of the Year — Dan Berg of National Bank of Commerce.
- Volunteer of the Year — Sam Richie of Fryberger Law Firm.
- Business Champion of the Year — Dr. Chiamaka Enemuoh of Lifestone Health Care, Inc.
- Aaron Kelly of LHB Inc. was named chair of the chamber's board of directors.
A moment of silence was held for the late Duluth City Councilor Renee Van Nett .
Energy industry on the rise in Duluth
The keynote speaker was Bethany Owen, who became Allete's president in 2019, shortly before the onset of the pandemic, and took on the role as CEO the following year. In over two decades with the company, Owen served in various roles, including general council for Allete, president of Superior Light and Water Co., and director of transmission regulatory compliance for Minnesota Power.
"Shepherding in a transition for 50% of her team to work from home, continuing to ensure reliable energy as every business and household was adapting to an unprecedented economic destruction and setting a vision for the company to provide 100% carbon-free energy by 2050," Baumgartner said. "That's how Bethany began her time as CEO."
Owen spoke about the importance of innovation in sustainability.
"The Duluth Chamber has been a wonderful partner for our company for many decades," Owen said. "As Allete continues to evolve and lead the remarkable transformation of the nation's energy industry, we never forget that this great city is our home."
Allete is the parent company of five energy-centered businesses that employ 1,500 people, including Allete Clean Energy, BNI Energy, Minnesota Power, New Energy Equity and Superior Water, Light & Power. Allete's strategy is "sustainability in action" to benefit the climate, customers and communities. The company also works to achieve a clean energy future in the right and just ways, Owen said.
"Our strategy must address the very urgent need to address climate change," Owen said. "From our largest industrial customers competing globally, to small businesses with narrow margins, to our most vulnerable low income customers, we have to get this right."