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Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra on track to move into Depot

The DSSO has proposed to rent the Family Theatre space long occupied by the Duluth Playhouse.

Erin Aldridge, left, fiddle player for Danny Frank & Smoky Gold and Concert Master for the DSSO is joined by members of the DSSO
Erin Aldridge, left, fiddle player for Danny Frank and the Smoky Gold and concertmaster for the DSSO, was joined by members of the DSSO to play during the DSSO Bridge Sessions at the Depot on July 8.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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DULUTH — The Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra is seeking to become the next major tenant at the St. Louis County Depot.

The three-member Depot Operations Committee of the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners on Monday voted unanimously to grant the Depot's administration permission to enter into lease negotiations with the DSSO and most of the venue's current tenants. The matter now moves to a committee of the Depot's board of directors Tuesday, followed by the full board on Aug. 9 if the request passes committee.

Depot director Mary Tennis and a selection committee reviewed responses to a request for proposals that all prospective Depot tenants — including current tenants — were required to submit. In a May op-ed published in the News Tribune, Tennis wrote that the process was initiated "to be certain we are serving as a community resource, engaging a diverse audience, and bringing vitality and sustainability to the building."

According to its proposal, the DSSO is seeking "to curate its own new performance series and open up the theatre as an affordable option to local performing arts ensembles." The proposal describes "15 to 20 performance events by DSSO musicians each year" as the sort of programming they might bring to the Family Theatre space, which has long been rented by the Duluth Playhouse.

In March, the Playhouse announced that it was leaving the Depot to consolidate programming at the NorShor Theatre and nearby Zeitgeist. The Arrowhead Chorale, which currently offices at the Depot, did not submit a proposal to continue as a tenant.

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The Depot's selection committee determined to move forward, pending approval, with lease negotiations with the venue's other current tenants: the Duluth Art Institute; the Depot Foundation; the Lake Superior Railroad Museum and North Shore Scenic Railroad; Minnesota Ballet; and the St. Louis County Historical Society.

At Monday's meeting, Tennis said that both the Lake Superior Railroad Museum and Minnesota Ballet proposed to rent the space currently known as the Underground Theatre. The museum hopes to install an elaborate model train exhibit, while Minnesota Ballet proposed to use the space for classes, workshops, and performances.

Minnesota Ballet's proposal "indicated the space will be used in a manner that would provide a significant benefit to underserved populations within our community," said Tennis at Monday's meeting. "They really addressed diversity, equity and inclusion in their proposal. The underground would provide them with a visible space within the Depot, which they currently do not have."

Danny Frank & Smoky Gold is joined on stage by members of the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra
Danny Frank and the Smoky Gold were joined on stage by members of the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra during the DSSO Bridge Sessions at the Depot on July 8.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

While Commissioner Paul McDonald, the committee chair, noted the model railroad "would be a valuable addition" to the Depot, the committee ultimately agreed with the selection committee's recommendation to move forward toward leasing the space to Minnesota Ballet.

"The Depot really has to undergo significant upgrades to its overall building systems, so we have no idea what areas of the building will be significantly impacted by that," Tennis told the News Tribune. "We just don't want to make any kind of agreement that includes a lengthy process or great cost to a tenant or something that's permanent" until those upgrades are completed.

If the Depot board approves the selection committee's recommendations, lease negotiations will include not only the details regarding what spaces, precisely, each tenant occupies: rent will be a question.

The Depot is seeking a minimum rent per square foot of $4.97. Not every tenant has said they can meet that threshold. Minnesota Ballet has proposed $4.50 per square foot, while the Duluth Art Institute proposed $1.50, Tennis told the commissioners.

Leaders of the Duluth Art Institute have expressed reservations about the RFP process from the beginning. In an op-ed published in the News Tribune in May, the DAI's Christina Woods and Robin Washington criticized the "surprise imposition of a request-for-proposal process, asking the organizations to bid on the spaces they’ve occupied for years."

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Presuming lease agreements are reached this fall, tenants will be bidding again next year: according to Tennis, leases would extend through the calendar year 2023. The Depot is hoping to offer longer-term leases once renovations are complete, she said.

According to the DSSO proposal, the orchestra hopes to ultimately land "a long-term lease for space at the Depot, preferably for the next 10 years."

More about the Depot and its tenants
While tenants express frustration about a new process to keep their slots, St. Louis County defends its decision to potentially open up the Depot roster.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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