When it comes to turning Duluth into a tourist destination, Gary Doty points to one individual as the single most important catalyst.

"I don't think there's anybody in Duluth who has done more for tourism than Dan Russell," said Doty, who has served the city as a mayor, county commissioner and state representative.

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After 27 years on the job as executive director of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, Russell announced Tuesday afternoon that he will retire Aug. 31.

"Sometimes you just know when the time is right. ... I didn't want to be a person who hung in there too long," Russell said. "I've seen that before, and I always promised myself that that wouldn't be me."

Russell will be 63 years old when he leaves the DECC. He said he plans to remain in Duluth with his wife, Michelle, and their 11-year-old daughter, Grace.

Nascent industry

Russell's efforts to promote Duluth predate his tenure at the DECC. He came to the center after a 10-year stint leading the Duluth Convention and Visitors Bureau, now known as Visit Duluth.

Pat Francisco served on the executive committee that hired Russell to head the bureau. He recalled that at age 24, Russell appeared less qualified for the job on paper than the other finalists. But what the young University of Minnesota Duluth grad lacked in experience, Russell made up for with optimism and enthusiasm.

Those were exactly the traits that Francisco viewed as critical to redrawing the mental image that many people had of Duluth in the late 1970s.

"This community was in a transition. Iron mining was struggling. Shipping had had its day. The steel mill was shutting down and leaving town. Industry was leaving. We were going through our beginning stages of the rust belt agony that communities like ours were suffering," Francisco recalled.

"We needed a new look and a fresh look and an exciting look, and something that could be fun in the midst of all of this gloom. So Dan was the guy, and he proved to be the guy. He moved our tourism from kind of a hit-and-miss operation to a very focused marketing thrust," Francisco said.

Russell spearheaded a number of unique promotions featuring Telly Savalas, Gilligan's Island, a ski train, Concorde supersonic jet trips he chartered to Duluth and more.

"We decided to dispense with all of our marketing that wasn't directed right at the Twin Cities. So we aimed our message down I-35, and we had the job of changing a perception of a community that was smokestacks and gray and industrial to a resort getaway that was an upbeat, cool place to go," Francisco said.

DECC challenge

To be frank, Bob Heimbach said he didn't know if Russell had what it would take to lead the DECC when he was hired in 1989. At the time, Heimbach was serving as chairman of the board and said he favored an out-of-town finalist who had more experience managing such a facility, but he was outvoted.

Once the hire was announced, however, Heimbach offered Russell his support and said he was soon impressed with the results.

"He did such a fabulous job that I became one of his biggest cheerleaders, and I've been one ever since," Heimbach said. "He exceeded my expectations tenfold."

Russell stepped into a messy situation. Soon after he started, Russell learned that managers of both the DECC's concession and ticket office divisions had been skimming revenues, so he fired them, and the two individuals were subsequently convicted of theft. He also showed a finance director the door, yet Russell was quick to find a silver lining.

"I didn't consider that an altogether bad thing. It gave me a chance to hire my own team of people to turn the place around. ... In some ways that made the job easier," he said.

Russell attributes much of his success to the team he has built at the DECC.

"If I do have one talent, it's that I hire above me," he said. "I know that if you get really smart people in place, and you let them do their jobs, good things are going to happen."

Impressive record

Under Russell's tenure, the DECC has experienced tremendous growth. Physical additions at the DECC have included the Amsoil Arena, the City Side Convention Center, the Harborside Convention Center, a movie theater and two parking ramps.

The DECC's annual budget has grown from $1.6 million in 1989 to more than $10 million today.

The facility employs 500 people, including 90 on a full-time basis.

Russell's success has drawn national notice, said Greg Ortale, who recently retired as president and CEO of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau and previously served as president and CEO of Meet Minneapolis.

Reflecting on Russell's accomplishments, Ortale said: "From a pure industry perspective, it is uncanny that he's been able to keep that complex ... really profitable, with money in the bank. That's pretty much unheard of. And it's because of some strategic decisions he made, taking the catering in-house and taking on equipment rental and some of that stuff. He created revenue opportunities."

Ortale said Russell would have had countless opportunities to take jobs in larger markets but chose to stay.

Russell acknowledged he had received multiple job offers but remained committed to Duluth. He said he enjoys the city's beauty, its proximity to the wilderness, its people and the family environment it has provided.

As for the DECC's growth, Russell credits that to a "team effort."

However, Francisco contends people should not be swayed by Russell's modesty.

"He'd be the first to say he didn't do it all by himself and whatever, but he's been the sparkplug. He was the guy," Francisco said.