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Glensheen enjoys resurgence of popularity

For the first time in more than a quarter-century, Duluth's historic Glensheen Mansion will finish the year above the 100,000-visitor mark. The final numbers aren't in yet, but Dan Hartman,

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A tour group enters the Glensheen mansion in August, 2015. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
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For the first time in more than a quarter-century, Duluth's historic Glensheen Mansion will finish the year above the 100,000-visitor mark.

The final numbers aren't in yet, but Dan Hartman, Glensheen's director, said he suspects total attendance this calendar year will reach 101,000. He said attendance for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, is likely to reach at least 110,000.

The historic mansion has seen a resurgence of popularity as a tourist attraction, boosting its projected attendance more than 90 percent from the all-time low of 56,450 visitors it sank to in fiscal year 2007.

Hartman said that in the past few years staff has worked hard to bring more people in Glensheen's doors.

"We've thrown a lot of things against the wall, and the thing we learned most is that we need to sell Glensheen. We spent a lot of time trying to sell special events here and other things, but those really didn't make that much money. In the end, when we started trying to sell tours at Glensheen again, people really responded to that," he said

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About 5 percent of Glensheen's visitors hail from Northeastern Minnesota; the vast majority come from farther away, with the Twin Cities remaining its largest single market, Hartman said.

Anna Tanski, president and CEO of Visit Duluth, pointed to a 2014 study of the city's tourism industry.

"Our research shows that 66 percent of our visitorship does come from the Twin Cities. So when you look at two-thirds of 3.5 million visitors every year, that market remains our primary draw, and that's what we work very hard to tap into. But we're also seeing great increases in new markets that we've expanded our messaging in, which includes Fargo-Moorhead, Des Moines, Sioux Falls and Thunder Bay," she said.

Hartman said staff members at Glensheen have worked hard to rekindle interest in the 39-room mansion that's now more than a century old.

"Many people had come here in the 1980s and they didn't see any reason to come back. So part of our big strategy was: Let's give them some new reasons to come back," he said.

Hartman said Glensheen surveyed its visitors, "and the thing we came away with again and again was that people really wanted to see the house. It wasn't necessarily the family history that interested them. They really wanted to see this big, beautiful house and hear about its details. So we came to the conclusion that the more we can show this, the better."

Glensheen has offered several new tours in recent years, but Hartman said the most successful by far has been the Nooks & Crannies Tour.

"People love that because they're going into new spaces that weren't available to the public before," Hartman said.

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Some other ideas didn't fly, however, such as a new grounds tour Glensheen launched a few years ago.

Hartman said that experience taught him "a hard lesson."

"People are coming here because of the house," he said. "We made more money off the Nooks & Crannies Tour the first day than we did off the entire summer of the grounds tour. It was hard to even get people to take the grounds tour for free, because they just wanted to see the house."

Tanski praised Hartman and his team for stimulating new interest in an old building.

"(It's) a credit to Glensheen for their incredible proactive marketing efforts, where they have become very creative in refreshing what they are offering to the public. They are creating new experiences and new opportunities so you can see Glensheen in a whole new way, even if you've maybe visited in the past," she said.

Hartman contends there's much for the public yet to discover at Glensheen.

"What's really exciting about Glensheen is that there's still so much more to reveal. Everyone thinks they've seen all of Glensheen, but there's so much of the estate that people don't even know is here," he said.

Hartman said he believes attendance at Glensheen is on track to reach new heights, eventually surpassing even its all-time record set in fiscal year 1981, when the mansion drew nearly 140,000 visitors.

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"That's because of the strength of the quality of what's actually here at Glensheen and the fact that we still have not reached that greatly into the Twin Cities market," he said. "The more that Glensheen gets to be a known commodity, with everything we have here, the numbers are only going to grow."

Hartman views Glensheen as a work in progress.

"Next year, we're going for a bonding bill. If that bonding request comes through, particularly if we fix the boathouse - that will be like a whole new attraction here at Glensheen. It's one of the last remaining structural boathouses on all of Lake Superior. It will be an amazing thing for people to see," he said.

It's just one of the projects on Hartman's lengthy to-do list.

"My long-term vision is to rebuild the trail system alongside the property that at one point connected to Congdon Park. What I would love and envision down the road is to see Duluthians taking a hike down Congdon Park and then coming underneath London Road to have a picnic down on Lake Superior and feeling like Glensheen was an extension of the park service," he said.

Hartman said the mansion already has undergone a significant transformation

"This amazing, beautiful and exclusive residence was originally built for one family. But now, this is ours," he said. "This belongs to the public, and it's our job to show it off."

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Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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