Former Duluth city councilor and state legislator Roger Reinert has been tapped to replace Chelly Townsend as executive director of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, at least on an interim basis.

At a Wednesday morning meeting of the DECC's board of directors, Reinert was placed in the leadership role. Reinert will step down from the DECC's board, after nine years of service, to accept the job. With Townsend on personal leave, Reinert, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, had been volunteering his time to help manage DECC staff since July.

"I learned it was a really great way to use a variety of skills I've developed over the years. So, to the role, I'm bringing my experience in crisis management and crisis communication. I'm bringing my background in training as an attorney. And I'm also bringing those years of building relationships from service on the council and in the Legislature at a time when the DECC really needs to be reaching out to partners so we can ensure that it survives the pandemic."

DECC Board President Karen Pionk thanked Townsend for more than 30 years of service as she departs and said: "Roger will lead us through this transition."

Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Reinert said, the DECC has had to tighten its belt, noting that staffing was reduced from 474 in March to 52 today, with a number of those remaining positions being part time.

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"It's pretty bare bones at this point," said board member Lynne Williams, thanking staff for their efforts to conserve financial resources.

Roger Reinert
Roger Reinert

DECC Finance Director Caty Kaups said the organization's reserves remain at around $1 million.

Despite substantial cuts, however, Reinert said the organization has continued to burn through about $200,000 per month.

With 800,000 square feet of space — or 1 million if you include Bayfront — Reinert said, "When you look at the expense side of the ledger, most of those things really can't really be adjusted. It's maintenance, repairs, insurance, utilities. Our electric bill alone is $50,000 a month. So, there's work to be done there, but a lot of those are pretty fixed expenses."

To date, the DECC has been unsuccessful in obtaining any relief through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

With many conferences and events canceled at the DECC, Reinert said staff intend to market the large amount of space the facility has to offer, enabling it to host events at which guests can maintain social distancing.

The DECC has been able to reopen the William A. Irvin, a retired laker. Steve Rankila, director of the floating museum ship, said the attraction has proven a strong draw, collecting $137,000 in revenue in the past 20 days. He said guests have entered the vessel as masked family groups, with tour guides maintaining a 10- to 15-foot distance. Rankila also said the ship is sanitized before and after tours.

Jeff Stark said the Bentleyville Tour of Lights is still on tap to set up its holiday display at Bayfront Festival Park this winter, but it will likely operate as a drive-through attraction to maintain social distancing.

Stark said the DECC, with its centralized location right off the freeway, is also meeting with the Minnesota Department of Administration to discuss the possibility of setting up an area COVID-19 testing site for the next eight to 10 months.

As winter weather approaches and outside seating becomes less attractive, Stark said the DECC is looking at hosting an all-area beer hall. He said the DECC also is exploring opportunities to use parts of the DECC for child care, religious services, indoor holiday markets or even dance studio gatherings.

"We're splitting those up amongst the staff and working through our networks to make some of those things become reality and really respond head-on and think about things differently than the traditional convention and concert kind of mode that we've been in," Stark said.

Reinert referred to the DECC's ability to provide space and pull in large amounts of fresh air as two of its greatest selling points in these pandemic times.

This story was updated at 3:15 p.m. Aug. 26 with additional comments from DECC Interim Executive Director Roger Reinert. It was originally posted at 11:27 a.m. Aug. 26.