DECC has endured challenges, changes over five decades

As workers were putting the final touches on the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center's 50th anniversary celebration, executive director Dan Russell didn't hesitate to promise another big bash.

2711871+decc 06jul09_559.jpg
The construction of the new arena and parking ramp in 2009.

As workers were putting the final touches on the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center's 50th anniversary celebration, executive director Dan Russell didn't hesitate to promise another big bash.

Mark your calendars. It's tentatively scheduled for August 2066.

"I absolutely cannot imagine a reason that the Arena and Auditorium won't be celebrating their 100th anniversary," Russell said of the original two buildings that started the now-sprawling complex overlooking Duluth's harbor.

A half-century after opening, the buildings remain integral parts of the DECC - decades after most facilities of its era fell to the wrecking ball. They continue to host concerts, hockey games, sports shows, conventions and political rallies.
The Arena has outlasted the St. Paul Civic Center and the Met Center in Bloomington, Minn., two hockey facilities constructed in the same era and demolished in the 1990s. The Metrodome, a combined baseball and football stadium in Minneapolis, saw just 32 years of use before being torn down in 2014.

Meanwhile, what started as two buildings in Duluth has grown into a premier facility for entertainment and sports, providing a unique mix of facilities under one umbrella.


So what's the secret to the longevity of the original Duluth Arena-Auditorium?

"We've taken care of our facilities," Russell said. "It's one thing to always be building, but it's another thing to be a good steward of community resources. I think our board of directors over the years has taken great pride in keeping our buildings up-to-date."

Careful planning in 1966

Russell credits the DECC's original architects with having the foresight to design an arena and auditorium that met the needs of both the audience and the performers.

The signature purpose of the Arena was clear from the start, he said.

"In an arena experience, especially for sports, sight lines are everything," Russell said. "A lot of the buildings in that era tried to be both hockey and basketball buildings, and failed at both.

"But what they did, which is very smart, when they designed the original Arena, was they understood that it was a hockey building. And it still has the best hockey sight lines. People in the industry still talk about the old DECC Arena and what an experience it was to watch a hockey game there."

Likewise, careful consideration went into the design of the Auditorium. It has a capacity of 2,300 seats - on the high end for auditoriums - and was built with requisite backstage space to host full-scale Broadway productions.


"Both of those buildings are just as solid as can be," Russell said.

The proposal to construct the Arena-Auditorium at the harborfront location was controversial in the early 1960s. At the time, the area was populated by junkyards, and it would be several decades before Canal Park was developed into the tourist destination it is today.

But the city has reaped the benefits of its now-prime location, Russell said.

"There aren't many settings like this for arenas," he said, standing in the Arena concourse overlooking the Aerial Lift Bridge. "So many arenas are in terrible neighborhoods or out in the boondocks. Here, we're right on the waterfront."

Everything under one roof

In 50 years, the complex's footprint has grown significantly, providing new event opportunities and revenue streams.

Pioneer Hall was added in 1976, providing convention space and a home to the Duluth Curling Club. Additional convention centers were added in 1990 and 2001. A bigger hockey facility, Amsoil Arena, opened in 2010.

A movie theater - including a giant UltraScreen, formerly the Omnimax - is now in the fold, and two parking ramps have been constructed on-site. The DECC has assumed management of the William A. Irvin and Bayfront Festival Park.


"We're maybe the most unique building I can think of," Russell said. "Think of Minneapolis. You have an arena, and then you go eight blocks away to the symphony hall. You've got the Minneapolis Convention Center, you've got your curling clubs, your movie theaters, your festival grounds. Here, it's very efficient because it's all in one place and under one organization."

He said that has allowed the DECC to keep steady revenue streams by doing in-house management of services that would normally be branched out to third parties, such as concessions, catering, parking and exhibit services.

In turn, investments have been made in aging facilities.

Over the years, the Arena has undergone complete renovations of its roof and seating area. A revamped concourse will be unveiled at Saturday's celebration, featuring original artwork depicting some of the biggest acts to have taken the stage - including Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Cher.

And while it might seem strange to have two hockey arenas side-by-side, Russell said there is demand for it in Duluth.

While Amsoil serves primarily as the home to the University of Minnesota Duluth hockey programs for much of the year, the original Arena continues to see regular use. Along with annual events like sports shows and robotics competitions, it still plays host to concerts and special events like a January rally for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who drew nearly 6,000 people.

The DECC complex averages more than 500 events a year - many of them taking place over multiple days.

"We're just so incredibly busy," Russell said. "Other buildings count days of the year (when they're hosting events). We kind of laugh at that. For us, it's events per day."


Meeting the changing needs

Russell said he doesn't see any major additions on the horizon for the DECC, but said continued upkeep and improvements to the existing facilities remain a top priority.

While other communities have ditched their aging facilities in favor of shiny new buildings that generate excitement, Russell said he wanted to embrace the 1966 Arena.

"Right now, a 20-year-old arena is ancient," he said. "The Metrodome seemed brand-new and here it's torn down. The Met Center is now a megamall. The St. Paul Civic Center didn't last very long. To me, that seems very wasteful. One of the things we take very seriously, and have for long time, is our environmental mission."

Russell said the changing needs for sporting and entertainment events have been a driving force behind the rapid overturn of facilities.

"Technology has changed a lot," he said. "When I started 27 years ago, a UMD hockey game was a game. But now it's a production. It used to be we had a scorekeeper and somebody to operate the scoreboard. Now, we have 12 people running a studio with replays and scoreboards. ...

"Concerts, now people expect huge video screens and special effects. It isn't just a concert anymore. So we have to keep up-to-date on that. That's why we added Amsoil Arena, because we couldn't retrofit our old building anymore."

The challenge, Russell said, is keeping facilities relevant to meet the needs of audiences. Entertainment is always changing, he noted, but so is technology.


Ten years ago, 81 percent of ticket sales for DECC events were purchased over the phone through TicketMaster. Today, it's less than 1 percent, with almost all sales coming online or through smartphone apps.

"What we always have to remember is that we're just one really big community club," Russell said. "We have to keep in mind the whole reason the DECC is here. That's to entertain people and to help the economy, and it's really up to us to adjust with the times."

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or
What To Read Next
Get Local