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DECC board delays vote on proposed merger with Visit Duluth

Several board members asked for more time and information before they take action.

The Duluth Entertainment Convention Center and downtown Duluth. (File / News Tribune)
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A proposed vote to merge the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center with Visit Duluth will be placed on hold until the end of December.

After meeting online for one hour and 45 minutes Monday afternoon, DECC board members unanimously agreed that a working group should spend the next few weeks gathering more information on how a merger of the two organizations might proceed and whether it would prove mutually beneficial.

But not all DECC board members are keen on pursuing the idea.

Former mayor and DECC board member Don Ness said he remains "skeptical" of a rushed marriage, with a vote on the proposed merger initially scheduled to take place on Wednesday now pushed off to Dec. 30.

"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 said.

Ness acknowledged that while the DECC and Visit Duluth are both in financial crisis as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, joining forces at this time would risk "doubling the amount of crisis that both organizations are facing."

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.

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."


DECC board member and 2nd District Duluth City Councilor Roz Randorf requested additional details on the potential cost savings and financial benefits of a merger.

Most of Visit Duluth's funding comes from Duluth's tourism tax collections, but with the hospitality industry still struggling as a result of the pandemic, the organization's funding likely will be reduced 25% from its normal level of $2 million annually to $1.5 million in 2021, said Noah Schuchman, chief administrative officer for the city of Duluth.

The city's contract with Visit Duluth will expire at the end of December, and Schuchman said he hopes to have a new agreement ready to take its place shortly, but that will need to wait until the DECC decides to take the organization under its wing. Nevertheless, he said the city could wait until the DECC board's next regularly scheduled Dec. 30 meeting for a vote, providing more time to explore the proposed merger.

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."

Ness suggested the DECC board take the next year to consider a possible merger with Visit Duluth, but board member Pat Mullen, senior vice president of external affairs for Allete Inc., warned against dragging out the process that long, regardless of good intentions.

"Honest to God, I just see nothing but pain and anxiety every meeting," he said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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