For 23 years running, Duluth and St. Louis County have sent busloads of residents to St. Paul to impress upon legislators the need for continued investments in the Northland. But at a time when public health concerns make mass gatherings impractical and downright dangerous, the annual two-day lobbying effort has required an overhaul.
This year, the event — called "Duluth and St. Louis County Days at the Capitol" — will move to a digital format.
The solution is less than ideal, acknowledged Kathleen Privette, director of events for the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, but she said it beats the prospect of canceling the annual effort, now in its 24th year.
“There is no way to compare a virtual event to an in-person event,” she said. “In-person events will always be better and more valuable.”
Yet, Privette said the Chamber decided to use an online platform called Gatherly that will allow participants to break off into small-group or even one-to-one conversations with lawmakers during the event.
While the virtual format is an imperfect alternative to actual face-to-face contact, Privette said they "know the value of this event."
"We didn’t want to lose the momentum just because we couldn’t meet in person," she said.
As of Tuesday, about 300 people had registered for the March 3 reception and another 250 people had RSVP’d for a legislative gathering the following morning. In a typical year, Privette said those events would draw about 500 and 300 people, respectively. Nevertheless, Privette said she considers the response to this year’s virtual event impressive.
Mayor Emily Larson noted that Duluth was the first city in the state to send a large delegation of people to St. Paul on a dedicated day during the legislative session each year, and other cities followed suit when they saw how effective that effort was.
Larson said she’s also pleased to see the resourceful efforts to continue the event during challenging times.
“We’re going to adapt to the new norm," she said. "We’re going to try something new. Maybe it will be really successful. Maybe we will make changes, because there will be parts of the experience we don’t want to replicate. But at least we’re doing this, and I hope that sends a really positive message to legislators throughout the state of Minnesota that we are a region and a community that truly believes in ourselves."
St. Louis County Administrator Kevin Gray said: “I give the Chamber a lot of credit for continuing to make efforts to help us connect with our legislators and, quite frankly, with each other, within our business community and across our political bodies, as well, including obviously the city and the county.”
District 7A Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, said many other cities have simply canceled similar events and praised Duluth and St. Louis County for their persistence.
“That just shows the dedication, I think, of our community and our county. It shows their commitment to how important this is,” she said.
District 7B Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth, said she sees value in continuing the tradition, despite the challenge of doing so remotely.
“Just because we’re in a pandemic and just because we’re operating differently doesn’t mean we can’t continue and evolve. I give credit to the Chamber and the group planning this that they kept going and really persevered,” she said.
“Perhaps this year won’t look the same or quite have the impact as other years. But it doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. It’s still a worthwhile endeavor,” Olson said.
Both the county and city made continued state aid their top priority this legislative session. At the time they were setting their goals for the session, Minnesota was projecting a budget shortfall for 2021, but the latest forecast now predicts a $1.6 billion surplus.
Olson said it was logical for the county and city to fear that local government aid could become a target for cuts, as the state faced down a deficit and suggested the odds of avoiding that prospect are much improved with the state’s new financial forecast.
“My hope is we weren’t ever looking at cuts, that we were looking at investments and revenue. And with this, it definitely makes it easier to do that — to not have to take a cut approach,” Olson said. “Even with the outlook what it is, we still need to be raising revenue. We still need to be making investments. This isn’t a time to turn down the dial on that. We have so many people who are hurting.”
This story was revised at 5:30 p.m. March 2 with updated information about the number of people registered to participate in Duluth and St. Louis County Days at the Capitol. It was originally posted at 3:58 p.m. March 2.