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The view from the Depot is a little brighter for tenants

Andrew Berryhill, in the middle of his first season at the helm of the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra, was filling out his first application to the Minnesota State Arts Board, an annual responsibility that plays a significant role in the orga...

Andrew Berryhill, in the middle of his first season at the helm of the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra, was filling out his first application to the Minnesota State Arts Board, an annual responsibility that plays a significant role in the organization's funding. The document is a 20-pager that has to be substantially rewritten every year. He had finished it, proofread it twice and reviewed the work of his predecessor. But still, he wasn't sure.

So he went next door. Christine Gradel Seitz, his counterpart at the Duluth Playhouse and his neighbor in the Depot, is a veteran of the process and was working on her own. He asked her to take his home and look it over, and the next morning, he found a handwritten note on his desk with suggestions.

It was a small moment, maybe, but "hugely valuable," he said Wednesday. And this -- more than anything relating to the 750 square feet or so of office space the DSSO rents at the Depot and could probably find cheaper elsewhere -- is why he wants the organization at the Depot.

"Real collaborations come out of that kind of proximity," he said, noting a couple of possibilities that had come up with other Depot tenants just over a few days.

Ken Buehler, executive director at the Transportation Museum at the opposite end of the building, said the sense of community is real at the Depot and more so during troubled times -- he even is considering a collaboration with an arts group.

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Of the perception that sometimes the Depot neighbors haven't been very neighborly, he said, "I've got to say that I don't see that."

Gradel Seitz went so far as to call them a family.

Berryhill, Gradel Seitz and Buehler were all breathing a little easier Wednesday over the "landlord troubles," as Berryhill calls them -- the resignation of the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center's management team that has called the building's future into question.

Berryhill, whose DSSO is one of the organizations least threatened by the situation, said, "I can't picture a worst case that closes the building."

He said the revenue the building brings in and the importance of the nine organizations housed there make such an idea unthinkable.

With three tenants already advancing or considering proposals to take over management and a reaffirmation of support from the county board Tuesday, he and other tenants were optimistic. The county agreed to continue operations month-to-month with a temporary management company, was open to solutions and generally appeared supportive of keeping the Depot open, observers said.

"What happened yesterday is exactly, frankly, what I hoped," Berryhill said.

Gradel Seitz and Buehler were also upbeat, and they have more at stake. Both the Duluth Playhouse and the Transportation Museum have large, crucial facilities located in the Depot. Both have expressed interest in taking over management.

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"We have a vested interest in keeping the doors open," Gradel Seitz said. "We have a show opening in two weeks."

Buehler said his organization's management plan for the Depot would cut into the building's deficit, in part by not replacing Depot management staff who have already left. He said some services -- which included bookkeeping services, a copy machine, marketing and other administrative functions -- were necessary when the facility opened up but were becoming obsolete. Most of the organizations weren't using them.

He summed up the change simply: "Twenty-six years of evolution took place in a couple of months."

Indeed, both Gradel Seitz and Berryhill also noted that the transition so far has been relatively seamless, and Samantha Gibb Roff, executive director at the Duluth Art Institute, another big Depot tenant, said all those functions were incidental. The main thing is keeping the building open.

Speaking before the county board met Tuesday and in the midst of her own grant application, Gibb Roff said the DAI owns a building in Lincoln Park and could carry on without the Depot, but it would have a big effect on exhibition space (the DAI currently has four exhibits going on) and on the ceramics program, which is a popular aspect of the group's offerings.

In short, what the Depot needs is essentially a new landlord to manage the building, just as Berryhill put it.

Buehler describes the Depot funding picture as a three-legged stool, with the county and city of Duluth taking equal shares of about $150,000 and the community itself, buying tickets and visiting, chipping in about $260,000.

The question mark is the city.

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"We would hope that the administration, once they find out what the cuts from the state are going to be ... will find a way to reinstate that funding for the Depot," he said.

His case for that to happen: "What goes on in this building is the heart and soul of arts and culture in this community," he said. "These are things that make a city a better place to live -- for everybody."

Good tenants

There has been some perception that the Depot controversy is a question of city and county government bailing out failing arts and cultural organizations. This may be a natural assumption, with many arts organizations across the country struggling, but many of the Depot tenants actually seem to be bucking that trend.

{IMG2}Gradel Seitz said the fact that management failed might mislead people, but the Playhouse is doing well. Ticket sales and class attendance are up over last year, and the organization recently had to expand to room in the Technology Village to accommodate demand for its education programs.

"Our chin is up," she said. "We feel good."

The Duluth Playhouse is the longest active community theater group in the state and one of the three longest-lived in the country, and she has no intention of breaking the streak.

"We're certainly not interested in that now, as we approach our 90th birthday," she said.

Like many nonprofit arts organizations, the Duluth Playhouse and the DSSO rely in part on foundation money -- essentially sums of money which are invested in things like the stock market. In times of economic turmoil, those funds decrease.

But like the Playhouse, the DSSO is having quite a bit of success compensating with ticket sales. Berryhill said the orchestra is drawing about 2,000 people per concert, up significantly from last year. He compared the draw to hockey games and noted, in reference to Duluth's favorite sport, "If we're talking about symphony and hockey in the same breath, that's not too shabby."

He also noted that DSSO surveys show additional economic benefits -- half of the orchestra patrons reported eating a meal out before the show, which is about 1,000 meals in area restaurants.

Attendance is up for the Transportation Museum and the North Shore Scenic Railroad, too, Buehler said.

Predicting the future

The state budget picture will play a role in the future of the Depot, and it's difficult to say how that will turn out, but hope is alive.

"I'm pretty optimistic it can be done," Buehler said of keeping the Depot running. "I'm more than cautiously optimistic."

He did show some sympathy, though.

"I feel for the city of Duluth and the predicament, but I've got to change their minds," he said. He noted that citizens should also let their representatives on the City Council know where they stand on the issue.

Editor's note: Kyle Eller is features editor for the Budgeteer News. He is also a member of the Arrowhead Chorale, one of the arts organizations affected by the fate of the Depot.

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