Mary Tennis has long been fond of the Duluth Depot. She used to take her toddler daughter there and they would watch plays, ride the train and tour the museums and art on display.
“It’s always felt like a resource to me,” Tennis said. “It’s always felt like this pillar of a civic center in Duluth, and I’ve always been in awe of the architecture.”
On Thursday, St. Louis County will publicly introduce Tennis as the first executive director of the county’s Heritage and Arts Center — the conglomeration of eight entities that call the Depot home.
In March, St. Louis County announced it would seek an executive who would oversee the county-owned Depot and the tenants located within it — the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, St. Louis County Historical Society, Duluth Art Institute, North Shore Scenic Railroad, The Duluth Playhouse, Minnesota Ballet, Arrowhead Chorale and Matinee Musicale.
The new position was created to improve attendance by coordinating among the tenants to promote with a common interest in mind.
“When I read the job description, I thought, ‘Boy, this is a really good fit for me. This could be a new chapter,’” said Tennis, who was chosen from among 46 applicants.
Currently volunteer president of the Duluth Public Arts Commission, Tennis is wrapping up 18 years at Northern Waters Smokehaus, where she rose from part-time into a marketing position and ultimately general manager. In her time there, the popular Canal Park eatery has gone from five employees to 50. Her last day is Friday, and she’ll start with the county on July 8 in a role that is scheduled to pay her $74,776 annually.
"Mary Tennis really impressed us with her diverse skill set and servant leadership approach," County Board Chair Patrick Boyle said in a statement to the News Tribune. "She has strong business experience having managed the Northern Waters Smokehaus, plus an education background in art history and volunteer experience in the arts community. We were looking for someone who could enhance the successes of the Depot tenants and build vibrancy for the entire organization as we move forward, and Mary has a strong vision on how to achieve that."
Tennis described for the News Tribune a “visioning process” she incorporates into her leadership. It involves a large information gathering process, lots of communication, documentation, transparency and markable steps toward an end goal.
She was quick to say that her coming aboard doesn’t mean any of the entities were doing anything wrong, only that the small non-profits and other entities involved might not have the time to work together despite best intentions to do so.
“I’m so happy the county created a position where I can be the listener and the facilitator to help these folks work together,” Tennis said.
Tennis will have plenty of work.
First of all, the annual attendance figure at the Depot is difficult to determine, because different organizations count attendance differently, the county said. According to the Duluth Attractions Council, Depot admissions were 45,444 in 2018. North Shore Scenic Railroad saw 101,864 passengers and Duluth Playhouse took in 57,396 attendees.
"What we don’t know is how much overlap exists between those three," county spokesperson Dana Kazel said.
Figuring out a better tracking system will be one of Tennis' tasks.
Tennis also said she was already thinking of creative uses for the trademark Great Hall. Additionally, the Depot is in need of $8 million in repairs — deferred upkeep and upgrades which have resulted in leaks and crumbling bricks. The work was identified by the county in 2017. The county has said it is willing to pay $2.25 million, and is expected to ask the state for $5.75 million in what will likely be the 2020 bonding bill.
"The Depot is a valued and historic community resource, and we are making it our top bonding priority heading into the next legislative session," Boyle said. "With Mary on board, we can now say with confidence we are equally investing in its operations."
On the National Register of Historic Places, the Depot is more than 125 years old. In recent years, the Depot has been proposed to go back to its future as a commuter train station, having been identified as the northernmost destination on the proposed $550 million Northern Lights Express passenger train between the Twin Ports and Minneapolis.
“I absolutely love that idea,” Tennis said. “It just feels right and I’m hoping it does happen. It would serve the community and county tremendously.”