DECC doubles down on entertainment
Two newly created positions will allow the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center to bring more shows of different sizes to the harborside complex.
DULUTH — For many Twin Ports residents, the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center is just a fact of life, like the Aerial Lift Bridge horn and lake-effect snow. It's so ingrained in their experience, they hardly even think about it.
"Most people can talk about a memory," said DECC board chair Lynne Williams, "a concert or wedding, some sort of personal connection they have, but they might not say 'the DECC.' They might say Bayfront, they might say Amsoil, they might say the Irvin, they might just say the Convention Center."
"Duluth Entertainment Convention Center" is the latest name for the sprawling complex that first established its presence in 1966 with the Duluth Arena Auditorium. A pair of newly created positions are part of a push to expand the boundaries of what the "E" in that acronym entails.
"I feel like this is a really great cultural space," said entertainment curator Emma Deaner, "and I can't wait to play in this concrete jungle."
Deaner's position is new, and so is that of entertainment manager Kimberly Carr, who now leads the DECC's entertainment programming, which includes any ticketed event. Yes, that means hockey technically qualifies as "entertainment," but don't expect to see pucks spilling out of Amsoil Arena into other spaces at the DECC. Guitars, Deaner said, will be a different story.
"I get to work with these fine folks to help bring more music to the DECC, and that can come in a variety of ways," Deaner said. "Within the DECC facility, there's a lot of really neat spaces that you could imagine as intimate clubs. I'm really looking forward to redefining those spaces as alternative music venues that Duluth is hungry for right now."
"This is really going to help us focus on entertainment," Carr said about the new positions. "We can do even more than what we've done before."
Both hires are part of a new direction the DECC is taking under Dan Hartman, who was hired in May 2021 to succeed longtime DECC director Chelly Townsend . ( Roger Reinert served as director during an interim period starting in August 2020.) Hartman impressed the board of directors with the way he'd reimagined Glensheen when the former Duluth city councilor led the historic mansion, starting in 2013.
Deaner is one of a handful of past Glensheen staffers who Hartman's now brought to the DECC. As experience designer at Glensheen, Deaner led events like the popular Concerts on the Pier series, which brings local musicians to perform for audiences that arrive both by land and by lake.
"I can't wait to go to a Concert on the Pier on a sailboat," Deaner said. (That's a luxury not afforded to Glensheen staffers who need to work the events.) Deeply networked in the Minnesota music scene, Deaner has worked at the now-closed Electric Fetus in Duluth and been a DJ at KUMD. She also plays drums with Superior Siren.
She'll draw on those connections in expanding music programming at the DECC to include more local bands who may not ready to lead the venue's larger stages. "I'd love to see local artists being able to open up for some national bands, and having that pathway as an incubator for a lot of local musicians," she said, "not only in Duluth, but in Minnesota and the Midwest in general."
Both Carr, who was promoted from event planner, and Deaner will work on the new "DECC Presents" series of entertainment events. The series allows the DECC more freedom to book shows and craft lineups without being beholden to outside promoters and their independent agendas. Citing the DECC-presented Winter Village , Hartman explained, "from a Duluth perspective, what's great about that is that we can decide what time of the year those are ... if you're an outside promoter, you're going to pick the season that you're gonna make the most money."
Relying on outside promoters to bring entertainment to the DECC means lots of shows when tourists flock to Duluth in the summer, but slim pickings for the locals who stay all winter — not to mention for the visitors who might come to town in the colder months if there was a can't-miss show to see. In the warmer months, the DECC will eventually be able to make use of a new Harbor Plaza that's currently in the works .
It's all about the experience
"Historically," explained Carr, "the DECC has been a venue. A very large, important venue, but really (just a) venue. The planners and the promoters come to us, rent the space, put on their shows, put on their events, and we do what they ask us. Whereas now, we are in the position to create our own events and bring in bands and bring in entertainment and put these events on that we're building from ground up."
Presenting their own entertainment events gives the DECC more freedom to curate local vendors, opening artists, and other elements of the live experience. "If Wilco went to St. Cloud and Wilco came to Duluth," said Hartman, "I would love (if) someone would come here and be like, 'I'm always gonna go to Duluth, because I know (I'm) gonna have a different experience. It's going to be quirky, it's going to be fun.'"
When national acts are mapping tour routes, Williams admits, "Duluth is a little bit out of the way. So why would they want to come here? And why would they want to keep coming back? I think Duluth can sell that. I think Duluth can sell the experience."
"We are an incredible place for new acts and talent to discover," Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said. "I have been really eager to see more come our way."
Carr said her vision for events is to go beyond "walk into the concrete room, there's your show, go home, hope the show was great." The DECC team, she said, aspire to create a memorable "all-around experience, from entrance to exit."
At Glensheen, Hartman and his staff boosted attendance by offering novel experiences like "nooks and crannies" tours and spooky after-dark tours (complete with adult beverages, in covered cups to prevent spills).
Williams says she's ready to see that risk-taking energy at the DECC. She praised Hartman as "someone who's willing to try new things, because that comes with success and failure." Referring to Hartman's Glensheen experiments, she said: "They weren't all wins. But he's also not afraid to say, 'That didn't work, and how do we fix it?'"
Williams said she wasn't part of the search committee considering Hartman for the DECC job: in her role as chief marketing and public relations officer at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, "Glensheen reports up to me." That means she's now working with Dustin Heckman, Hartman's successor as the mansion's director.
Moving forward, Williams said, "Glensheen is on a really sustainable, successful path, thanks to Dan and the previous team and the team that's still there. So I think it's time for Glensheen to go (to) the next chapter. We're not in a new book, but we're definitely in another chapter." That will involve a closer focus on education, she said, and on cultivating philanthropic support. "We would love to build a new welcome center."
"When I took over Glensheen, nine years ago, it needed a new refresh. And I'm happy to say the refresh has happened," said Hartman. "They've got a good business operation running now, and then they can add in that faculty, educational side, and I think Dustin's gonna do an awesome job with that."
A center for more than conventions
The DECC isn't alone among multi-use venues leaning into entertainment: Hartman said similar facilities across the country are making a "strong, hard pivot" to embrace entertainment as it becomes increasingly clear that convention business isn't coming back to its pre-pandemic volume any time soon. "On one hand, this is a new, exciting adventure," he said. "It also, financially, is very business-driven."
As an authority governed collaboratively by state and city appointees, the DECC doesn't need to be a profit engine — but it does need to generate revenue for needs including the maintenance of its aging infrastructure, as an investigation after last summer's ammonia leak at the DECC-based Duluth Curling Club laid bare. Noting that the DECC is also an emergency shelter, Larson said Duluth is lobbying for state bonding support to address the DECC's infrastructure needs.
"We do see the state as an important partner in that facility (that), of course, provides incredible regional significance," said Larson. The fact that the DECC was created by state statute "makes it a more compelling story for state legislators to want to invest, because ... the state is a part of the structure that has made the DECC possible."
Most fundamentally, said Williams, the DECC needs to bring people to the city. "Concerts, conferences, whatever you're doing there, puts people in hotels," Williams said. "It puts people in restaurants, it puts people in retail shops. And so to me, the DECC is sort of that core, one of the very fundamental components of driving Duluth's tourism and economy."
The DECC's purview also extends to Bayfront Festival Park, which it manages as an event space, and the William A. Irvin, which it owns. "I think of Bayfront Festival Park as being the next Red Rocks," said Deaner, referring to the famed mountainous amphitheater near Denver. "It's such an epic outdoor venue in a really unique natural space."
Will bands be booked on the deck of the floating museum that is the William A. Irvin? Hartman said he'd love to see it someday. In the meantime, look to see live music in spaces like the Harbor Side Ballroom, which offers sweeping views of the Duluth Harbor Basin.
"I honestly think this is going to become one of those great spaces for music at the DECC," said Hartman about the ballroom, citing the success of the Feb. 5 "North of Nashville" local music showcase that Carr put together. "It was awesome to see the musicians standing here and then having that Lift Bridge background at night. I mean, you're not going to get that anywhere else."
"It's an intimate setting," added Carr, "but can still have 400 to 500 people in it."
Opening more spaces for live music gives the DECC a wider range of options for booking artists at different levels of popularity. Just as a band might play the 7th St Entry in Minneapolis and then return later in their career to play the adjacent First Avenue Mainroom, an artist might progress from the DECC's ballroom to its Symphony Hall.
That means making the Zenith City a regular tour stop for national artists, as well as a place where Northland artists can grow. Deaner said the DECC is hoping to create "quintessential Duluth moments" that reinforce the city's status as "the sought-after place to go to for music, arts, culture, food, outdoor exploration and everything beyond."