DULUTH – Just one month into his new role as director of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, Dan Hartman had a full-blown emergency on his hands.
An ammonia leak mid-July in Pioneer Hall's cooling system led to a staff evacuation and the shutdown of Harbor Drive. The incident — handled swiftly by DECC engineers and the Duluth Fire Department — laid bare the need to replace crucial pieces of the aging, publicly funded regional tourism center, clawing its way back from pandemic-forced layoffs and cancellations.
"It's not going to be easy," Hartman said. "Government support has been very, very crucial."
The DECC booked 87 events September through December, from a wedding convention to Oktoberfest at Bayfront Festival Park. An infusion of federal and state COVID relief money and some earmarked from the city is aiding the continued operation of the 800,000 square-foot harborside complex, whose first arena opened in 1966.
Hartman, 38, comes to the DECC from Glensheen Mansion, where he was director for eight years. A former Duluth City Council member, his ties to the DECC's Amsoil Arena, home of UMD Bulldogs hockey, run deep. As a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth, he and others regularly traveled to the Capitol in 2006 to lobby the Legislature for the arena's funding. A Crosby, Minn., native, Hartman sees part of his job as showing off what the DECC does. Recently that's meant using social media to highlight the Bayfront Blues Festival and the Bon Iver show.
"This is what I learned at Glensheen: I get to see all the cool stuff," he said. "So why not bring a camera with so everyone else can see it?"
Here is an excerpt of a recent conversation with Hartman that has been edited for length.
Q. How's the DECC's financial outlook?
A. Even though the delta variant is throwing a wrench in some of our initial planning, we are optimistic based on the existing number of bookings. Grants and aid packages the DECC has received have and will be critical. These funds help us bridge the time between bringing back staff and when events reach 2019 levels again. It's also our hope to be more strategic in our rehiring to put the DECC in a better financial position in the long run.
Q. We've heard about the pedestrian-friendly harborside plaza behind the DECC. What are other plans?
A. I truly believe the DECC's strategic advantage is the waterfront, and this space shows that well. This is a total dream, but I would love to bring the Duluth regatta back. The nerdy historian in me hasn't left.
Q. What's kept the DECC from pandemic closure?
A. Our U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar sponsored the bill (Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program) for funding for places like this. That mattered. Our relationships with UMD, Marcus Theatres and the DSSO (Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra) were crucial (as they continued to pay for their leased spaces).
Q. How do you feel about the DECC's future?
A. Pretty excited. The DECC has had a tough couple of years, but as you can tell by the number of events, things are picking up. September is 90% to what we were in 2019 ... October is 50%, so we still have some needed growth.
Q. What's unique about the DECC?
A. If someone is coming to a convention in Duluth, they can spend their morning out on a paddleboard. I've been to enough conventions; we all have the same beige walls. The best part of selling the DECC is selling Duluth. The entire harborside is nothing but windows. Duluthians have forgotten the value of this real estate, this amazing view.
Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450