A contentious proposal to join Visit Duluth with the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center was placed on hold just 12 days before the DECC's Board of Directors was slated to vote on the proposed merger.
While the matter never actually went to a vote, a Wednesday monthly meeting of the DECC's board made it clear that the organizations will continue to explore what their future relationship may look like.
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson sent an email announcing her intentions to submit a request for proposals from organizations interested in marketing the city come January 2022.
For 2021, Visit Duluth will continue on in its traditional destination marketing role with the help of $1.5 million in tourism tax funding from the city — $500,000 less than it was budgeted to receive in 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
In response to a call from the News Tribune, Anna Tanski, executive director of Visit Duluth, issued a statement Wednesday afternoon.
"We respect the mayor’s decision to issue an RFP," she said. "It is in everyone’s best interest that our vital tourism industry is marketed in the strongest possible way. We look forward to the process and showcasing our success, experience, commitment and reasons why Visit Duluth is the best marketing partner to continue growing tourism and support the overall economic development of our region."
Tanski expressed confidence that her organization's track record will speak for itself.
"We are proud of Visit Duluth’s incredible work over the last 85 years, fulfilling our mission while growing the visitor economy year over year and driving millions of dollars into the city," she said.
Now that plans of an imminent merger with Visit Duluth have been set aside, DECC Board Vice Chair and President-elect Pat Mullen, said fellow board members can focus on appointing a new executive director.
"I think what we want to do is move forward, to the extent we can, with advancing leadership within the DECC. So, we will proceed with getting in a new executive director. We would start on those activities right away," he said.
Former city councilor and state legislator Roger Reinert has been serving as the DECC's interim director since August, when Chelly Townsend stepped down from the role. Reinert confirmed his intentions Wednesday afternoon to seek the job on a permanent basis.
Meanwhile, Mullen laid out his game plan for the coming months.
"We would get our committees going on the things we need to do," he said. "And we would actually take time and move into the strategic planning process and continue that as we get into the new year. And then, as we get into summer with the whole RFP process, we can evaluate where we are, how we're positioned and what we want to do at that time. But I know that conversation may take more board discussion. So, what I really want to do is just basically tee that up and say we've got that going on."
Looking back at the merger talks, outgoing DECC Board President Karen Pionk said: "On behalf of the executive committee, I can't express enough appreciation. You, as a board, had to put a lot of trust in what was happening and the conversations that were going on. And I understand that and understand how that felt as you were getting updates and that sort of thing.
"Could there have been a different process and a better way? Absolutely. We landed where we did, and I think we should all feel good about the work that was done," Pionk said, thanking board members for their active engagement both in support and in opposition to the proposed merger.
Mullen said he expects the discussion to continue.
"The thing that I think is a key takeaway here is: What's next? And I think as our board thinks about the strategic planning process coming up, I mean these timing issues are going to be really important. And so, as we think about now the city introducing this whole RFP process for summer, it does put in an element of: So, what do we do next? Do we wait and participate? Do we not wait and move forward? I mean, what do we do?" he asked.
Mullen stressed the importance of resolving the pressing financial and operational challenges that face the DECC in the midst of the ongoing pandemic.
"So, let me just say that I think for a foundational starting point that I'm going to suggest that we continue to move our DECC issues forward. So, I don't think we're waiting. The RFP process is interesting. We may or may not participate. We can kind of decide that later. But I think that these priorities about what we do right now in this moment matters," he said.
This story was updated at 5:17 p.m. Dec. 30 with comments from Anna Tanski. It was originally posted at 4:56 p.m. Dec. 30.