Duluth City Councilors have approved Mayor Emily Larson's tourism tax budget for 2022, which allocates money to several organizations that previously were not funded.
New to the funding list are groups and projects including:
• Bellmont Partners, $1.8 million, which will replace Visit Duluth as the city’s tourism promotion agency.
• $450,000 to assist in the construction of a cruise ship Customs facility.
• Funding of $100,000 to create a city tourism marketing position.
• The new passenger airline flight to Denver, which will receive $50,000 to promote the route.
• The Zeitgeist Center for Arts and Community, $25,000 for an international film festival.
• $8,500 for the Kraus-Anderson Bike Festival.
• $50,000 for the Bentleyville Tour of Lights.
• A Hawk Ridge bird observatory, $30,000.
• Duluth Fourth Fest, $57,000.
• $20,000 for the Duluth Children’s Museum.
On the controversial topic of Visit Duluth’s role in promoting the city’s tourism, a previously announced option to partially extend the group’s partnership with the city is one of Larson’s recommendations. Proposed is a three-year contract in the amount of $650,000 annually for convention sales and visitor center services. An extra $300,000 is proposed to purchase the Visit Duluth website, social media channel and for rights to use the group's logo. It’s a one-time buyout.
"We look forward to partnering with the city of Duluth and Bellmont Partners, the contracted marketing agency, and are confident that as a team we will continue to drive our industry forward," Visit Duluth said in a prepared statement provided by Board Chair Brianna Vander Heyden. "We are excited to continue and enhance these operations through this new destination marketing structure. We are also pleased that the city is expecting to form a tourism industry advisory committee to garner valuable industry input and insights for destination marketing," the Visit Duluth statement said.
Some final details are yet to be negotiated. Upon final approval of a contract with the city, the Visit Duluth board will post an open leadership position for the revamped Visit Duluth organization, Vander Heyden said. She called it "a new position," adding "The board has engaged the existing staff and welcome their interest in this leadership role.
Larson believes the budget should be flexible from year to year to best serve the city’s needs. She launched a process through which groups can formally apply to receive a tourism tax allocation. Her administration reviews those requests and makes recommendations for the City Council to review.
“Distributing money is always political and messy. A lot of people need money and the process has an element of controversy,” she said, because there’s never enough to meet everyone’s needs.
Among her goals, the mayor said, is to get more and better information about Duluth’s visitors so the city knows how to best serve them by funding the best partner organizations. Some of those tourists, Larson explained, are highly visible, but others, such as birders visiting Hawk Ridge, make an important impact but are less noticed because they’re outside of the tourism corridor.
In general, the tourism taxes, which are collecting on food, beverages and lodging, must be allocated toward efforts to promote the city as a travel destination.