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Big Changes: St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center
Kristin Johnson

Big Changes: St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center

County Commissioners' View: Big changes coming in 2019 to historic Depot

The following article was written by Commissioners Beth Olson, Patrick Boyle and  Frank Jewell. It was originally published in the Duluth News Tribune on Dec. 26, 2018.
For more than 125 years, the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center, the Depot, has been a landmark in Duluth. What began as the Union Depot serving as the gateway for immigrants and industry to our region through two railroads, this beautiful building has been reincarnated as a host site for multiple organizations that celebrate the history, arts, and culture of the region. The Depot, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is home to the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, Duluth Art Institute, St. Louis County Historical Society, Duluth Playhouse, Minnesota Ballet, and Arrowhead Chorale
Ensuring that the Depot remains a vibrant and sustainable facility in downtown Duluth has been the focus of much study in the last year. A subcommittee tasked with examining operations is now moving forward with some changes.
In the early 1970s, with the Depot slated to be demolished, a group of citizens turned to St. Louis County with a vision for a center for the arts, culture, and history within the historic building. St. Louis County supported this vision, taking ownership of the building in 1972. Working hand in hand with the organizations currently housed in the Depot, the county supported this vision for more than four decades, providing subsidized space to tenants, managing building operations, and preserving the historic structure with critical repairs and improvements.
While the county has no legal obligation to expend taxpayer dollars toward the Depot, we believe in this initial vision set forth by our citizens. Over the years, the significant role the Depot and its organizations have had in enhancing the vibrancy and vitality of our community has been proven repeatedly. The Depot has served as a gathering place for veterans and local organizations without a home, has enhanced the education and cultural development of our children, has promoted creativity and artistic expression, has housed and has shown off the rich history of our county’s role in building America, and has brought the beauty of our North Shore up close for visitors and residents alike through the North Shore Scenic Railroad.
That initial vision was spot on: The Depot is an important player in our ever-increasing tourism and emerging creative economy. With critical infrastructure repairs needed at an estimated $8 million, the time was ripe this past year for a re-envisioning of the Depot and a new investment in its operations as well as physical structure.
Last January, a subcommittee was appointed by St. Louis County Board Chairman and Commissioner Keith Nelson. This group — made up of several county commissioners, plus staff from both the county and city of Duluth — reviewed the role the Depot plays in our community, its impact on citizens, and its business model and operations. The group examined all aspects of the Depot, including the mix of tenants and how they work together, space arrangements within the building, how to increase the number of visitors, and how it all could be better managed.
The group gathered extensive input from tenants and looked at the various roles and responsibilities of several affiliated organizations, including the Historic Union Depot Corporation, Oneida Realty (which the county currently contracts with to manage the Depot), and the Depot Foundation.
After the year of review, the group identified areas for improvement, including the need for a stronger operating model, better transparency and efficiency with financing and decision-making, clearer roles and responsibilities for tenants and the county, a better assessment of how space is used, and the need for a more welcoming reception area and wayfinding system.
This fall, the county issued a request for proposals, seeking an individual or entity to re-envision and remake the Depot, manage its operations and marketing, and pursue solutions to the issues identified. The county accepted a proposal from Oneida Realty for a six-month transition period and is now working to hire, as a county employee, an executive director of the Depot.
So while much work has been done, even more work will be done in the coming year. This reinvestment by the county illustrates our commitment to preserving and promoting both the Depot building and its tenants. We are excited to partner with the Depot Foundation to further its mission to support the Depot as a whole. You will see us at the Capitol advocating for state bonding assistance to make critical building improvements.
The Depot’s history is important. Its future could be even more so. Should the Northern Lights Express (NLX) come to fruition, the Depot could be a station along the line.
Whatever the future brings, the Depot will continue to play an important role in the economy and culture of our county. It is a community landmark that deserves to be properly preserved and promoted. And St. Louis County is committed to doing so.
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