The Duluth City Council chose to deviate Monday from Mayor Emily Larson's proposed plan for how the city should divvy up tourism tax proceeds next year.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Duluth's collections of tourism taxes are running about 30% below expectations this year, and Larson forecasts 2021 revenues will remain 25% below those of 2019, bringing in about $9 million versus $12 million last year.
About 60% of tourism tax collections will need to go to cover preexisting obligations, including debt related to Spirit Mountain, the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, the Minnesota Slip Bridge and recreational investments made along the St. Louis River Corridor.
Most recipients of tourism tax support will see their funding reduced under the mayor's plan, but nine organizations would have seen their support completely cut off.
An amendment offered by councilors Terese Tomanek and Derek Medved at least partially restores funding to two of those organizations left out in the cold by the mayor's plan. They called on fellow councilors to cut $25,000 from a proposed $500,000 allocation for operating expenses at the Spirit Mountain Recreational Area and use the proceeds to provide $20,000 in aid to Glensheen Mansion and $5,000 of assistance to the Duluth Children's Museum. Those organizations respectively had been slated to receive $50,000 and $20,000 in 2020, but came up short when the city's tourism tax collections fell below expectations due to the pandemic.
The motion to amend the mayor's tourism tax budget was passed without dissent, and the amended budget was then approved by the council again by a unanimous vote.
If not for additional support, the Duluth Children's Museum may be forced to close, warmed Erica Henkel, museum board chair and president. She explained that the museum is moving into a new facility at 2125 W. Superior St. and will need to fix a failing furnace and prepare the building for exhibits.
Meanwhile, Cameron Kruger, president and CEO of the Children's Museum, said the potential loss of city assistance was compounded by the organization's recent failure to obtain renewed Legacy Grant funding, which previously had been the its primary source of financial support. He described the situation as "a one-two punch" but also said he remains optimistic that the museum will be able to overcome the challenges ahead with community support and ongoing local fundraising efforts.
At large City Councilor Arik Forsman acknowledged the struggle facing the children's museum and encouraged community members to rally in support of the institution, saying, "I hope we can see both a private and a public investment in that organization. It's a gem of our city, and certainly if we were going to look at one additional entity to fund, if they are truly struggling to survive, I think that's a pretty compelling case, as well, when you talk about an investment in our youth."
Dan Hartman, Glensheen's director, noted that the historic mansion on London Road drew more than 140,000 visitors to its doors in 2019, and the vast majority of those guests came from out of town.
He said the city's support has helped attract additional funding from the state and the University of Minnesota, which owns and operates the museum. Hartman said those dollars will enable Glensheen to make "critical repairs to the estate so that future generations can enjoy the beauty and history of the estate."
For his part, 2nd District Councilor Joel Sipress lamented that the city couldn't provide support to still more organizations but noted the current lean economic times have forced it to prioritize. He expressed his hopes that the budget will be but "a one-year aberration," and many of the worthy entities left out of this year's tourism tax budget may well see support restored in the future.