The city of Duluth and several local partners will be asked to invest in the future of cruise ships calling on the port.
On Wednesday, the Duluth Economic Development Authority approved $50,000 in funding for equipment needed to help international visitors clear U.S. Customs at a proposed cruise ship terminal to be established on the city's waterfront.
Come Monday, the Duluth City Council will be asked for an additional $25,000 in funding, and the Duluth Seaway Port Authority will be asked to chip in another $10,000, said Heather Rand, DEDA's executive director.
She said federal officials have asked Duluth to make a local commitment of up to $85,000 by September to purchase equipment necessary to process international cruise ship passengers.
Anna Tanski, CEO of Visit Duluth, said the exact cost of the system required has yet to be pinned down. The technology first will be used to establish a temporary terminal facility and then will be used to equip a permanent terminal, with the location yet to be determined. In the past, international cruise ship visitors have been received on a temporary basis both at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center and at the Great Lakes Aquarium.
"The people from customs and border protection have sort of dictated that we need to guarantee funding first for the technology for the temporary facility before we can move forward in identifying the (permanent) facility. They won't even let us do that until we say we have funding for the technology," Tanski said.
Kate Ferguson, director of business development for the Port Authority, said the port has applied for a federal grant that could help cover the cost of establishing a cruise ship terminal in Duluth, but the outcome of that application likely won't be known for several weeks.
Rand said that if federal grant dollars do indeed become available, fewer DEDA, city and port authority funds may be needed.
Four international cruise ship terminals are currently proposed on the Great Lakes, with Duluth, Detroit and Cleveland all identified as strong port candidates.
Only two cruise ship visits to Duluth are scheduled in 2019, both by the M/V Victory II, a member of the Victory Cruise Lines fleet. But Ferguson predicts the pending trickle of cruise ship traffic will grow to a steady flow in coming years, with a minimum of eight cruise vessel visits to Duluth anticipated in 2020 and at least half of those voyages arriving from foreign ports.
Rand has loftier aspirations, however.
"Our goal would be within five years to build that business to a minimum of 20 cruise visits. We think that would be very healthy," she said.
Visit Duluth predicts the average passenger conservatively will spend around $200 per day while in Duluth, leading to an anticipated economic impact of as much as $100,000 per cruise ship, potentially approaching $2 million annually, if the city actually can attract 20 visits per year.
Tanski said Visit Duluth has been a member of the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition for more than a decade now and has been in close conversation with industry leaders. She expressed confidence that the projections for cruise traffic are quite attainable.
"This is not a stretch by any means. It's just that there is strong interest in developing itineraries on Lake Superior because Great Lakes cruising is growing in popularity, and there's a desire to have fresh new offerings to continue to grow that business. So there upwards of 30 or 40 ships currently under construction specifically for Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway cruising," she said.
Ferguson explained the Port Authority's involvement in advocating for a Duluth cruise terminal and said port staff enjoy strong relations with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, making them a natural choice to help facilitate the project.
"Our mission is greater than a lot of people realize - bringing business to the port and economic development to the region and advocating for maritime and industrial interests. So we believe that cruising on the Great Lakes is really tied into that mission, and it will stimulate economic development and it will stimulate tourism, and it brings business to our port. So I think it fits in quite well with our mission," she said.