A pair of resolutions passed Wednesday could help open the way for Duluth to become a more attractive cruise ship destination come 2022.
Both the Duluth Seaway Port Authority and the Duluth Economic Development Authority approved resolutions that could provide up to a combined $40,000 to cover the cost of designing a facility that could one day welcome waterborne international travelers.
The actual estimated design costs quoted by DSGW Architects for such a facility in Duluth is $30,500, but some additional funds have been built into the authorizing resolutions to allow for potential contingencies.
In early December, the city of Duluth received preliminary notice that it is in line to receive a $2.6 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. While the city initially applied for $3.5 million in funding, Chris Fleege, director of Duluth's planning and economic development department, said: "Even that amount will be a significant boost."
If the grant money comes through, as appears likely, Fleege said the funds would be used to drive longer and deeper sheet pilings along the seawall behind the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center to stabilize them and provide more secure moorings for visiting cruise ships.
Without the promise of the pending federal grant, Fleege said he likely would not have proposed bringing forward a resolution authorizing DEDA to pick up half the cost of designing a terminal.
Initial plans suggest the facility could be housed in the DECC, but Roger Reinert, the organization's interim director, said that proposal is in the exploratory stages right now. He stressed that any decision to forge ahead with the idea will rest with the DECC's board of governors.
Yet Reinert said if details can be worked out, such a facility may be very much in keeping with the DECC's mission, which he said is "about bringing people together" and building the region's tourism industry.
Likewise, Reinert said additional seawall improvements between the DECC and the neighboring Great Lakes Aquarium could benefit the community as a whole by providing what he hopes will be "a pedestrian area without pieces of broken concrete and sinkholes." Reinert noted that sturdier seawalls also would provide more appropriate moorings for future tall ship festivals and the pending commissioning of one of the Navy's newest ships, the USS Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Port Authority Executive Director Deb DeLuca said detailed design work for the pending facility would provide the specifications needed to seek construction bids.
"It would help us nail down the cost of the facility," she said, describing that as a necessary precursor to seeking additional support for the project, likely from both public and private sources, potentially including cruise line operators themselves.
DeLuca noted that the Viking Cruise Line plans seven stops in Duluth come 2022 and said there seems to be growing interest in Great Lakes cruising, as evidenced by the growth of the industry in Cleveland and Milwaukee already.
"A number of new lines are looking for new routes, DeLuca said, adding that a new terminal could position Duluth to be an industry player.
Anna Tanski, director of Visit Duluth, referred to Viking as "all in."
"They have been very clear that they are committed to Great Lakes cruising, but they have also made it very clear that they are committed to Duluth, Minnesota, as part of Great Lakes cruising," she said.
Tanski called Viking "a marketing machine" and said, "We will benefit from their tremendous resources and high, high visibility that carries on more than just a visitor experience. It's really about lifting up our entire community and putting us in a spotlight.
She noted that there are 37 ships currently under construction specifically designed for Great Lakes cruising. "The investment is tremendous by these private companies. So, we plan to capitalize on that," Tanski said.
"It is not at all out of the realm of possibility to have six, maybe even eight cruise lines, visiting Duluth as a port of call," she said.
Times are tough for cruise ship operators in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but Fleege suggested Duluth's timing in trying to bring a project forward may well prove opportune.
"By the summer of 2022, if they're right about the vaccine, we should be in great shape. Actually, that could be a real boon, because I do think there will be pent-up travel demand," he said, noting that downtown Duluth, Canal Park and the whole region could reap the benefits of international cruise ship travelers making day excursions while in the Twin Ports.
DEDA and the Port Authority have been assisted in their efforts by Visit Duluth and the DECC.
"I think this is a great example of many entities coming together and unifying," Tanski said.
Duluth has been talking about establishing a cruise ship terminal for years, at the behest of federal officials who now frown on the somewhat makeshift systems the city has relied on in the past to process the relatively infrequent visits of cruise ships carrying visitors from foreign nations.
Fleege said Duluth's past practices aren't likely to fly in the future.
"They really said, 'Hey your temporary facilities may have been fine when you were doing a couple here and there.' But with what's envisioned now, we would have to put a permanent facility in there. And that's not cheap," he said.
While DeLuca expressed excitement at the prospect of bringing more cruise ships to Duluth, she said any visitor processing center will need to be appropriately sized for the market.
Above all, DeLuca said: "We want to move forward in a responsible way."