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Local Depot View: Strong, visionary management can strengthen Depot

A photograph of 1901 Duluth hangs in the lobby of the Wells Fargo Center downtown. The black-and-white image shows a familiar city of smokestacks and steeples.

Rob Karwath

A photograph of 1901 Duluth hangs in the lobby of the Wells Fargo Center downtown. The black-and-white image shows a familiar city of smokestacks and steeples.

But at more than a century old, the cityscape is just different enough to be a bit disorienting. I look for a familiar sight to set me right. Where's the Depot? Ah, there it is: that unmistakable roof line, those majestic turrets. I know immediately where I am.

The Depot centers me, just as it centered a generation of newcomers and returning travelers to Duluth more than a century ago -- just as it can center, focus and gather us as a community again today.

The Depot represents the history of our downtown. But these days it's like a classic book that has been put up on a dusty shelf. St. Louis County, its owner, has taken good care of the building physically. But drive or walk by the Depot most days or nights, and there's little life in a place that once buzzed with activity and excitement.

We'd like to bring the Depot back and, in the process, help it bring back to life the western corridor of downtown. We are the AtWater Group, a full-service property management and commercial real estate firm based in

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Duluth at 425 W. Superior St., just steps away from the Depot.

While the Depot building is in good shape, the operation isn't. Wonderful, important arts, cultural and historical organizations call the Depot home. But the building isn't being managed to help them succeed. In the past seven years, two independent studies commissioned by organizations that love the Depot -- the nonprofit Depot Foundation and St. Louis County -- have come to the same conclusion: The Depot's operations and finances are struggling, and conflicts of interest abound with the current manager, which is governed by the same board and shares the same executive director and staff as a tenant organization.

"Most of the issues pointed out ... are not recent, so the lack of action to resolve the issues is striking to an outside reviewer," concluded the most recent study, completed in November by the Area Partnership for Economic Expansion, or APEX. That study called for a strategic restructuring of management at the Depot. St. Louis County administrators agreed. They asked for a new approach.

The Depot needs vision. County administrators and a selection panel of experts see vision in AtWater's proposal. They unanimously recommended that the County Board choose AtWater when the board votes Tuesday to pick a new Depot leadership team.

AtWater proposes to bring a positive, transparent and innovative approach to the management of the Depot, transforming a fallow resource into a center of community connectedness. Our strategy will expose one of our region's most historic buildings to many more people. We also will make the Depot financially healthy, allowing the county to divert the $175,000 it has spent annually on the building to other needs -- or to plow it back into the Depot with assurances that the money is being well spent. The city of Duluth also has annually contributed about $150,000 to the Depot.

AtWater's vision for new life at the Depot is based on three principles:

  • Activity: We propose to meld some or all of the existing tenants focused on the arts and history with a new group that would offer exciting retail and dining attractions, including limited-engagement "pop-up" stores and restaurants. We also would bring in signature events and new uses for the Depot, including concerts, lectures, business seminars, celebrity appearances and technology-aided historical tours. We would partner with neighborhood resources, including Amsoil Arena, the Duluth Public Library and Bayfront Festival Park to bring new activity to the western downtown.
  • Authenticity: Activities at the Depot must be real, valuable and, in many cases, unable to be experienced elsewhere locally. We would borrow from success stories at St. Louis' Union Station and Chicago's Navy Pier, two historic attractions that have become unique centers of fun and resurgence in their downtowns.
  • Community: We would approach the rethinking of the Depot as collaboration, with a Community Advisory Board helping us create activities and find innovative new approaches for citizens and tourists to experience this beautiful building. We would reach out to the strengths in our community that treasure the Depot and long to see this landmark remain relevant. Think back to that old photograph of downtown Duluth. Seeing the Depot in that picture helps me understand the history of our community, connecting our past to our present and future. With strong, visionary management, the Depot can come alive again and play that role for us once more.

    Rob Karwath of Duluth would serve as executive director of the Depot under AtWater Group's management. He is president and CEO of North Coast Communications in Duluth and was executive editor of the News Tribune from 2004 to 2010.

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