DULUTH – The Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra is looking to become the next major tenant of the St. Louis County Depot.
On Monday, the three-member Depot Operations Committee of the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to grant the depot administration permission to enter lease negotiations with the DSSO and most current tenants of the site. The matter now goes to a committee of the Depot board on Tuesday, followed by full board on August 9 if the request is accepted by the committee.
The Depot’s manager, Mary Tennis, and a selection committee reviewed responses to a request for proposals that all potential Depot tenants, including current tenants, were required to submit. In a May op-ed published in the News Tribune, Tennis wrote that the process had been initiated “to ensure that we serve as a community resource, engage a diverse audience and bring vitality and sustainability to the building”.
According to its proposal, the DSSO seeks “to curate its own new performance series and open up the theater as an affordable option to local performing arts ensembles”. The proposal describes “15 to 20 performance events by DSSO musicians each year” as the type of programming they could bring to the Family Theater space, which has long been rented by the Duluth Playhouse.
In March, the Playhouse announced it was leaving the Depot to consolidate programming at the NorShor Theater and nearby Zeitgeist. The Arrowhead Chorale, which currently has offices at the Depot, has not submitted a proposal to continue as a tenant.
The Depot’s selection committee has decided to move forward, pending approval, with lease negotiations with the other current tenants of the location: the Duluth Art Institute; the Depot Foundation; the Lake Superior Railroad Museum and the North Shore Scenic Railroad; Minnesota Ballet; and the St. Louis County Historical Society.
At Monday’s meeting, Tennis said the Lake Superior Railroad Museum and the Minnesota Ballet had offered to lease the space currently known as the Underground Theater. The museum hopes to install an elaborate model train exhibit, while the Minnesota Ballet has offered to use the space for classes, workshops and performances.
Minnesota Ballet’s proposal “indicated that the space would be used in a way that would provide a significant benefit to underserved populations within our community,” Tennis said at Monday’s meeting. “They really addressed diversity, equity and inclusion in their proposal. The metro would provide them with a visible space within the Depot, which they currently don’t have.”
While commissioner Paul McDonald, chairman of the committee, noted that the model railway “would be a valuable addition” to the Depot, the committee ultimately accepted the selection committee’s recommendation to move forward with leasing the space at Minnesota Ballet.
“The Depot really needs to undergo significant upgrades to its overall building systems, so we have no idea which areas of the building will be significantly affected by this,” Tennis told the News Tribune. “We just don’t want to make a deal that includes a long process or a high cost for a tenant or something permanent” until those upgrades are complete.
If the Depot’s board of directors approves the selection committee’s recommendations, lease negotiations will not only include details regarding the specific spaces each tenant occupies: rent will be an issue.
The Depot charges a minimum rent per square foot of $4.97. Not all tenants said they could meet this threshold. The Minnesota Ballet offered $4.50 per square foot, while the Duluth Art Institute offered $1.50, Tennis told the commissioners.
Duluth Art Institute leaders have expressed reservations about the bidding process from the start. In an editorial published in the News Tribune in May, Christina Woods and Robin Washington of the DAI criticized “the surprise imposition of a request for proposals process, asking organizations to bid on spaces they have occupied for years” .
Assuming the leases close this fall, tenants will be bidding again next year: According to Tennis, the leases would run through calendar year 2023. The Depot hopes to offer longer-term leases a after the renovations are complete, she said.
According to the DSSO’s proposal, the orchestra hopes to ultimately land “a long-term lease for space at the Depot, preferably for the next 10 years.”