DULUTH, Minn. | If you can't run from the cold, then at least make it an economic opportunity.
That's part of the pitch the city has embraced to attract residents and important tourism dollars to the Zenith City.
Duluth tourism bureau chief Terry Mattson said the city is continuing to position itself as Lake Superior's premier family destination. And it is working.
Mattson, president and CEO of Visit Duluth, said up until a dip in 2009, the city had 19 consecutive years of growth in tourism-related receipts. This year is projecting to be better than 2010, which was the city's biggest year ever. Last year, the city collected $7.5 million in taxes on hotels, motels and food and beverages at restaurants, Mattson said. The city has 4,600 hotel rooms and more than 50 restaurants in the downtown area.
"A lot has changed in 2 1/2 decades," Mattson said. "Duluth tourism is one of America's great success stories."
What helped the city define its tourism vision was accepting what it was and letting go of what it couldn't be. Duluth is a cosmopolitan area, but it is tucked away on a northern Great Lake shoreline and it gets cold. Really cold. The average low temperature in Duluth in January is minus 2.2 degrees and the city gets nearly 78 inches of snowfall yearly, according to Visit Duluth.
"You can't be everything to everyone," Mattson said. "I think there's still a lot of people locally who don't appreciate all of what goes into it."
Mattson said it took research to understand that marketing Duluth to residents in the Twin Cities, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, provided the biggest return on money spent. People who come to the city want to spend time outdoors, so that pushes the need to develop hiking trails, skiing venues, water activities and camping locations.
Although people have called for the agency to advertise more in the Chicago market, Mattson said a lack of resources prevents it from being feasible.
Mattson recalls the depressing feeling of seeing a billboard in his hometown that had the message, "Will the last one left in the city, turn out the lights?"
But that was the feeling in Duluth, Mattson said, when he started his tourism career more than 20 years ago.
"We needed to focus more of our attention to the lake," Mattson said.
The downtown waterfront, which includes Canal Park, gets 3.5 million visitors each year, and its attractions support 18,000 workers each day, according to the Greater Downtown Council of Duluth.
"You take it for granted; I would sure miss it if it weren't available," said Charlie Stauduhar, owner of Spirit Lake Marina & RV Park. "I'd miss it if I were in a place that wasn't on the water. People don't realize how lucky we are. The rest of the country considers this the end of the world."
Areas bordering Lake Superior and the downtown business district weren't always a draw.
Greater Downtown Council President Kristi Stokes said one of the first steps in revitalizing the city's downtown required making areas cleaner and removing litter and graffiti as soon as possible. Duluth Mayor Don Ness said the city worked with the Greater Downtown Council, homeless advocates, property owners, police and others to help improve safety.
"We needed to get our house in order," Stokes said. "Communities that feel cleaner, (they) generally feel safer."
Canal Park, which has similarities to Chicago's Navy Pier, and the three-mile Lakewalk took years to develop, but they are working to bring thousands of dollars into the local economy. Railroad tours that run through the city offer a history of the Northland's industrial legacy and scenery.
Stauduhar said the city seems to have a singular focus on developing the area near Canal Park and may not be paying as much attention to areas such as West Duluth. He said it has been a struggle to get the city to allow him to put adequate signage near his business to attract people to come into the marina.
"They can't see beyond Lake Superior," Stauduhar said.
He said he would like to expand to 100 slips and be able to house 48 RV spaces.
"People are looking for places for their RVs; it's a huge business," Stauduhar said.
Tina Noel, an Indianapolis-based independent public relations professional, said she visited Duluth for the first time with her husband earlier this summer and was awestruck by the beauty of the lake and thriving downtown area. She said the lakefront hotels, the rocky beachfront and restaurants show the level of targeted investment made. She hopes to return with her children as part of an annual vacation to Gordon, Wis., which is about 45 minutes away from Duluth.
"It's clear the planners put a lot of thought into what works well and how to take advantage of the natural resources," Noel said.