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(rshsdepot) Duluth, MN

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The Depot in debt
by Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
January 30, 2003

Saturday, St=2E Louis County takes over management of a popular Duluth
tourist attraction and headquarters for nine arts and history
organizations=2E The St=2E Louis County Heritage and Arts Center is better

known as the Duluth Depot=2E It's home to art and historical displays,
performing arts spaces, and a popular railroad museum=2E But its nonprofit

managers have given up their struggle with an operating deficit, leaving
the Depot a ward of the county

Duluth, Minn=2E =97 The Depot is the second Duluth tourist attraction to f
into government management within months=2E In October, the City of Duluth

assumed control of the Great Lakes Aquarium, after aquarium managers found

they needed public help=2E The St=2E Louis County Heritage and Arts Center
suffered a similar fate; falling back on St=2E Louis County, which owns th
restored Soo Line Railroad Depot

Paula Davidson is executive director of the St=2E Louis County Heritage an
Arts Center, Inc=2E, a nonprofit that's run the Depot for twenty six years

This week she's tying loose ends=2E Next week she's unemployed=2E Davidson
the Depot's problems are as complicated as its managing structure

"It really may be time for a new model," Davidson says, "because this mode
doesn't work economically=2E"

The model that hasn't worked involves public ownership, non-profit
management, and an aging building=2E There's also a mix of performance and

exhibit based organizations=2E Some pay rent, others don't=2E Some charge
admission to events, and one, the railroad museum, gets a cut of the gate

The bottom line is always money, and it's money that's run out at the

Gate receipts dipped during a recent renovation, just as the Great Lakes
Aquarium was opening for business=2E Davidson says the new aquarium drew a
some of the Depot's coveted repeat customers

According to Davidson, repeat tourists pick each year from the plethora of

attractions in Duluth

"Well, this year we'll do the zoo and the Irvin and Glensheen, and next
year we'll do the aquarium and the Depot," Davidson says, explaining
tourist's thinking=2E "And, the year the aquarium came in, I think they
gathered a lot of that=2E People had to see it that summer=2E"

The Depot's challenges come from both owner and tenants=2E St=2E Louis Cou
capped the amount it would pay for utilities, according to Davidson,
several thousand dollars short of the actual expense=2E Meanwhile, the
Depot's most popular attraction, the Lake Superior Railroad Museum,
negotiated new terms, giving the railroad museum a bigger cut of the gate

Other tenants, like the Duluth Art Institute, get nothing from the gate

According to Davidson, part of the Depot's problems are the same as with
other nonprofit attractions and the Great Lakes Aquarium

"They talk about having to have that changing exhibit," she says

But, Davidson points out, it's very expensive to put in new exhibits

"Remember," she says, "these folks aren't getting, except for the railroad

museum, any portion of the gate=2E So they have to raise all that money

A property management company will watch over the Depot beginning Saturday
until County Commissioners determine its fate=2E Tenants, like the Duluth 
Institute, are concerned, according to Art Institute Director Samantha Gib

"It's really a wait-and-see type of situation at this point for us,"
laments Gibb Ross=2E "Will the services be delivered, as we expect them to
delivered, in order to do the business of art?"

The Art Institute pays no rent=2E There's concern new managers might charg
rent or increase fees to balance the Depot's books

"It is a concern that what it costs the Art Institute to exist here, and t
have our galleries and to run our educational programs, could increase,"
Gibb Ross says=2E "And that of course would affect our budget, which is un
stress anyway, just like everybody else's=2E"

But Ken Buehler, with the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, says change may b
for the better=2E He says the nonprofits housed in the Depot have grown
beyond the need for umbrella management

"Quite honestly," Buehler says, "I think that they can take care of
themselves, and a different form of management here, in the building, is
probably a good thing=2E"

St=2E Louis County Administrator David Twa says the county will likely iss
a request for proposals to manage the facility=2E Commissioners could sele
either a for-profit or another non-profit organization=2E But a non-profit

would have a better chance of tapping foundation grants, that may not be
available to either a government agency or a for profit business

Twa does not expect the Depot to close=2E Outgoing Director Paula Davidson

says the public will be unaware of any change

"When you walk in the door Saturday morning," Davidson says, "it will just

be like walking in the door Friday morning, when we're in charge=2E So, to

the public it'll be a seamless experience=2E It will be just the same as

In the meantime, St=2E Louis County Commissioners will meet February 11th 
decide what to do next

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End of RSHSDepot Digest V1 #583

The Railroad Station Historical Society maintains a database of existing
railroad structures at: http://www.rrshs.org