I, like many Duluthians, was stunned to read the notes from the city of Duluth’s evaluation team, which laid the groundwork for gutting Visit Duluth and allocating over $1.8 million of local sales tax to an out-of-area ad agency.
Let’s begin with the makeup of the evaluation team. Are we to believe that except for one city counselor, internal city staff have the experience and knowledge for evaluating a multitude of RFP (Request for Proposal) responses for selling Duluth? Look at the notes from the deliberations, and you decide. For me, these notes force a conclusion that eliminating Visit Duluth was preordained. Our mayor and chief administrative officer wanted direct control of all sales tax proceeds. The Visit Duluth management structure, which is centered around a community board of tourist related businesses, was an obstacle to that direct control. It’s no coincidence that no one from the tourist industry was on the evaluation team.
Also consider our mayor’s proposal to add a marketing person to her team, and which the council tabled. Will anyone take a bet that this position will be filled in the not-too-distant future? Who else on the city’s team is qualified to manage a $1.8 million marketing contract, once Visit Duluth is gutted?
Finally, let’s look at the conversation about metrics in the evaluators’ notes, which is a fancy term for measuring results. With Visit Duluth at the helm, the growth in sales tax receipts from tourism related businesses is as follows: 2014 was $8.8 million, 2015 was $10.6 million, 2016 was $11.4 million, 2017 was $11.6 million, 2018 was $12.2 million, 2019 was $12.4 million. Visit Duluth has done an admirable job of growing tourism spend for our city. Even during 2020, our COVID year, sales tax receipts hit $8.8 million. These numbers are straight from the city’s records.
But the evaluators complained that Visit Duluth didn’t provide metrics for evaluating performance. I guess sales tax growth wasn’t enough for them. It also means that the evaluation team did not provide metrics by which the winning group would be measured. This is where the happy dance happens. Any RFP winner would love to set the measures by which they are to be evaluated. In this case it will also help our mayor as she surely wants to publish future results that affirm the decision to gut Visit Duluth.
When you look at the qualifications of the evaluation team, the notes from the evaluation process itself and the proposal by the mayor to add a full time marketing staff member, it’s hard not to conclude this process was more about control than a sincere desire to improve the tourism experience in the city.
Rolle, a long time Duluth resident, was a former Board Chair of the DECC, Northland Foundation, Housing and Redevelopment Authority, College of St. Scholastica and Lake Superior Railroad Museum. He spent 32 years at Norwest and Wells Fargo, serving as President of the Duluth Bank and Regional President of Northeastern Minnesota. He retired in 2009.