Quiet force led massive arena project

Dan Russell is strolling through Amsoil Arena as if he hasn't a care in the world. Dozens of workers are scattered throughout the arena's 219,000 square feet. Russell seems to know each one by name, joking with one, complimenting another on work ...

Dan Russell
DECC Executive Director Dan Russell stands in the main entrance of Amsoil Arena, which begins a weekend of grand-opening events with tonight's UMD hockey game. The arena is easily the largest and most labor-intensive project in Russell's 21 years leading the DECC. (Bob King /

Dan Russell is strolling through Amsoil Arena as if he hasn't a care in the world.

Dozens of workers are scattered throughout the arena's 219,000 square feet. Russell seems to know each one by name, joking with one, complimenting another on work well done.

Along the way, he suggests -- but never commands -- a couple of tweaks: The script across the bottom of the giant scoreboard could be bigger; the "TH" on "HOME OF THE UMD BULLDOGS" could be lighter.

It was Dec. 16, and in two weeks the UMD men's hockey team would play North Dakota in the new arena, the culmination of a decade of planning, proposing, lobbying, negotiating and building. Amsoil Arena is the crown jewel of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, easily the biggest project in Russell's 21 years as executive director of the DECC.

Does he feel like a kid waiting for Christmas?


"It's bittersweet," said Russell, 56. "This has been a fun project."

The DECC has grown exponentially since its board hired Russell away in 1989 after 10 years directing the Duluth Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Cityside Convention Center opened soon after Russell took over. It was followed by the Harborside Convention Center, the Omnimax Theater (which will close next year), the Duluth 10 Cinema and two parking ramps.

The complex is approaching a million square feet, Russell said. Its budget has grown from $1.6 million when Russell started to $8 million now. He supervises about 350 employees, 90 of whom are full time.

When he was hired, Russell had a receding hairline, hints of gray in his black hair, a beard and mustache and a quick smile. Today, he's mostly bald, all gray and the beard is gone but the mustache and the smile remain. And he's clearly, though quietly, in command at the DECC.

"Dan's not about to call a news conference to announce that he's had some of the greatest influence on improving Duluth during the past three decades," said Steve Greenfield, whose firm, Greenfield Communications, handles publicity for the DECC. "But he has. I don't think anybody would dispute that strong of a statement."

Jerry Frederickson, a former DECC board member who owns Horseshoe Billiards in Lincoln Park and vigorously opposed the funding formula for the new arena, agrees with Greenfield's assessment.

"I totally admire Dan Russell and all he's done for the city and for the DECC and its management," Frederickson said. "I couldn't think of a better person."

But when he was hired, there were doubts about whether Russell could manage the DECC.


Although the board voted 9-1 to hire Russell on Dec. 28, 1989, the News Tribune reported the vote came "only after a spirited debate over his lack of convention center management experience."

Things didn't get easier after Russell took the job. Todd Torvinen, whom Russell hired as finance director a few months into 1990, recalled that Russell began by cleaning house. "There were some improprieties that had been going on for years. ... (Dan) was brave enough to address them," said Torvinen, now president and chief financial officer of ZMC Hotels.

Russell remembers it as a chance for a fresh start.

"You don't want to come into something that's running smoothly," he said. "After two weeks they fired our finance director. Our ticket office manager did some time and our food and service manager was convicted. ... For me it was a great opportunity to come in and bring in an incredibly talented group of people."

More recently, personal tragedy has troubled Russell. His wife, Carolyn, and his son, Tim, both died of the same form of mitochondrial disease; Carolyn in 2002 and Tim in 2008 at age 18. Russell remarried; his wife, Michelle, was Tim's counselor at a Muscular Dystrophy Association camp. They have one child, Grace, 5. Russell also has three grown children and two grandchildren.

Peg Zahorik got to know Russell when she taught Tim in special education at Duluth East High School. She remembers that Russell brought Tim to school every day and took time to get to know the other students and attend special events. He made sure Tim's funeral was held during a school day so all of his classmates would be able to attend, Zahorik said.

"You know what this man has done and the work he does and what he's creating," Zahorik said. "But when he's sitting there with you, you feel like ... there's nothing else on his mind."

Greenfield, a longtime friend of Russell's, has been around for the hard times.


"You do see from close up how if somebody had the most idyllic life, it would be a hard job to run something as big as the DECC," Greenfield said. "And if somebody had no job to worry about and just had to pay attention to his or her family, that would be a huge job all by itself with the challenges they've had. And so when you combine those two, and that the guy's been so brilliant and so successful and so thoughtful to others, it really speaks highly of him."

Russell said he was recruited for jobs in other places when he was younger, but never seriously considered the offers. He imagines retiring from the DECC at 62 and then working half-time for a local nonprofit. "I have no desire to move to Florida or Arizona," he said. "It would be great to stay in Duluth and find something worthwhile to do."

But Russell, who jokes that he couldn't build a doghouse, will probably never be involved in another building project anywhere near the scale of the Amsoil Arena. His focus now will switch to running the new arena along with the old.

"You know, it's one thing to build a building," Russell said. "It's another thing to manage a building. Now we have to figure out how to make sure the whole DECC complex is financially viable (and) train our staff to really run the new Amsoil Arena. And then hopefully get a round or two of golf in."

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