A new program launched May 19 is intended to help sustain local restaurants – $20 at a time.
Gathering beside a small plane inside the headquarters of Cirrus Aircraft, representatives of the Greater Downtown Council, the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce, the Hermantown Area Chamber of Commerce, Visit Duluth and the Duluth Local Restaurant Association introduced Strong Northland (StrongNorthland.com).
Billed as “a collective effort to provide an economic stimulus to our area during this challenging time,” the program encourages individuals and businesses to buy $20 vouchers that can be used at 40 local participating restaurants until Aug. 31. The initiative is meant to throw a lifeline to restaurants, among the hospitality businesses that have suffered the most damaging wounds during the COVID-19 shutdowns.
“Let’s take flight with this,” GDC President Kristi Stokes said during a press conference, harkening to the Cirrus location.
Already, $25,000 worth of vouchers have been purchased, she added, mainly by large companies like Cirrus to gift to employees or use as perks in other ways. Restaurants get reimbursed for the vouchers used.
Local eateries remain closed to sit-down guests until June 1, when the Minnesota state restrictions will be lifted. The vouchers can be used in any of the 40 participating restaurants for take-out orders now or for when customers can physically visit them this summer.
People can order single or multiple vouchers online and then pick them up and pay for them at any of four North Shore Bank locations in Duluth and Hermantown. The list of participating restaurants also can be viewed at the StrongNorthland.com website.
At the press conference, Patrick Waddick, Cirrus president of innovation and operations, explained his company’s support of this program.
“This is a community we love … with a special energy. We’re pretty good at solving problems together,” he said. “In the next 90 days, we can make a huge difference. ”
The hospitality industry is part of the vital local energy, he added. First praising healthcare workers for their roles in the pandemic, Waddick added, “the health of our local economy is just as important.”
Duluth’s tourism tax – an additional 2.5 percent to 3 percent sales-and-use tax for food, beverage and lodging businesses – has generated about $12 million for the city annually.
Unlike restaurants, most local hotels and motels, also the backbone of the hospitality industry, remained open during the shutdown, said Anna Tanski, executive director of Visit Duluth. Only three of the 29 hotels/motels in town shuttered completely during the shut down and one of those, Downtown Duluth Motel, converted to a shelter-in-place location for homeless people. By comparison, in Minneapolis, 14 of its 42 hotel/motels closed.
During the press conference, Carol Valentini, whose family owns Valentini’s in Duluth, Hermantown and on the Iron Range, urged people and businesses to support Strong Northland.
"The restaurant and hospitality industry provides a tremendous amount of support for a lot of organizations,” she said. “Today we are looking to the community. We need help today. We need help so we can survive. ”
Valentini pointed out that opening with even 50 percent capacity limitations will damage businesses.
“Some of us are not going to survive. … Come and see us as soon as possible.”
Although the vouchers cover so many restaurants, Valentini still sees the initiative as a vital step towards recovery.
“Spread the vouchers out,” she said. “We all need your help. … I always say, ‘Competition makes you better, but collaboration will sustain us.’”