Duluth Mayor Emily Larson was resolute Wednesday when confronted with mounting criticism over her plan to outsource promotion of the city to a metropolitan firm.
“I do understand that’s an area of tension,” Larson said Wednesday, the day after launching her tourism proposal to a wall of concern. “I recognize that. I still think this is the right direction.”
Under her proposal, Minneapolis-based Bellmont Partners would assume marketing and promotional responsibilities for the city, receiving a $1.8 million budget in 2022, with options to continue the relationship over the following two years.
It’s a move that would seem to imperil Visit Duluth, the city’s sole promoter since 1935, which Larson proposes would be kept to manage the convention and sports sales effort on behalf of the city, for a fraction of its current budget.
Such a move would cost the organization “three or four additional terminations,” on top of permanent layoffs to four staff in December when faced with a reduced budget allocation, Anna Tanski, president and CEO of Visit Duluth, confirmed to the News Tribune.
She said Visit Duluth was still considering the mayor’s proposal. Visit Duluth scheduled a news conference for 8:30 a.m. Thursday to discuss “rapidly developing dialogue” surrounding the issue.
Matt Baumgartner, president of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, said his organization has been closely monitoring developments, and still gathering information about what the decision would mean for the community. Still, many Chamber members are involved in support of Visit Duluth, he said in a statement to the News Tribune.
“We are very concerned that these members could potentially lose business due to this decision,” Baumgartner said. “Therefore, it is our hope that regardless of the final outcome of this development, our hard-earned tax dollars will continue to be invested in Duluth.”
Because negotiations are still proceeding, the city said the News Tribune would be unable to access the 28 applications for the city’s request for qualifications, or any resulting documentation related to decision-making that went into the mayor's plan.
The city disclosed Tuesday there were five applicants from Duluth, 15 from elsewhere in Minnesota and eight from out of state. Nine were selected for first-round interviews, and five ended up moving forward to the second round — all from Minnesota, including two local firms, one of which was Visit Duluth.
Visit Duluth's former director of communications and outreach, Maarja Hewitt, wrote the City Council, describing the move as a power play by the mayor and city. Another industry leader, Mike Seyfer, CEO of the Duluth-based Hailey Sault, said his firm declined to apply despite the ample $1.8 million budget, implying that it was distasteful how the city was treating Visit Duluth.
“I understand intimately that the city’s relationship with Visit Duluth isn’t perfect,” he wrote in his public letter to city councilors. “I fear that, over time, this will be one of Duluth’s great missteps.”
As city councilors prepare to weigh the mayor's proposal beginning Thursday, Larson was convinced the chosen firm and her administration could present a winning case. She said she understood people care deeply about important decisions, but that the city should always pay close attention to when it’s opening bids and awarding work to any vendor.
“There’s a lot of opportunity right now,” Larson said, describing airline passages out of Duluth to new locations and a chance to market the city to places outside the state.
“It is not just to change things up for the sake of changing things up,” she said. “It is to measurably grow and expand, to find new audiences and new generations of people, to encourage and find ways to go from one-night and two-night stays to three- and four-night stays.”
She flatly said Visit Duluth “didn’t show” capabilities the winning firm was able to — ways to better connect Duluth residents with its guests.
“We have this current experience of ourselves as being a tourist town, and we do, I think, as residents carry some negative feelings about how it feels to have people come into our town,” she said.
Larson described the resentment and notion that visitors get more benefits of the city than residents as false, and in need of correction.
The News Tribune asked if she was talking about topics like Spirit Mountain and city-owned golf courses — topics of consternation both recently and historically. Users and visitors gain one experience at those places, while residents can be left with less-enjoyable experiences, such as taxpayer-funded rescues.
Larson gave herself credit as a mayor who would take on long-standing issues in need of solutions.
“It’s interesting that you bring up those two examples, in particular — issues that have well pre-dated me and many mayors, and have needed attention,” Larson said. “These are the issues that bring me to this work.”
Larson addressed claims in Hewitt's letter that the the mayor wasn't responsive to Visit Duluth.
"I have been very responsive to this conversation and this industry," Larson said, describing more than a year of work in the ramp-up to her game-changing proposal. "We both get to be correct on that; it’s not really worth fighting over."
Larson positioned her proposal as a bold path into the future, one she reminded she's been entrusted to help forge.
“This is a sector that employs literally thousands of people. It is hundreds of millions of dollars of economic impact, and it’s citywide — not just Canal Park. It’s for everybody,” she said. “So for me, this decision is about what else is possible. I think it’s important we get to ask that question — leaders and communities, they get to ask that question.”
She was confident the direction would earn results.
"We should get big results; we should be growing in industry; we should be seeing more tourism taxes collected. All of those things are expectations of moving in this direction," Larson said.