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Duluth mayor proposes to fund more attractions

Barry Bast releases an immature red-tailed hawk that was captured and banded at Hawk Ridge on Sept. 18, 2016. Three new allocations are proposed for next year: $55,000 for the Duluth Transit Authority's trolley service, and $20,000 each for the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory and the Duluth Children's Museum. (file / News Tribune)

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson proposes a 4 percent increase in tourism tax spending next year after freezing those funds for 2018.

In all, she hopes to spend just shy of $12 million in 2019 — 4 percent more than this year. Wayne Parson, Duluth's chief financial officer, expects the increase will be supported by the growth the city has seen with its tourism tax collections, which have been running 4.3 percent above last year's level, year-to-date through October.

While most tourism tax recipients will see little, if any, change in the funding they receive, three new allocations are proposed: $55,000 for the Duluth Transit Authority's trolley service, and $20,000 each for the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory and the Duluth Children's Museum.

Hawk Ridge unsuccessfully sought tourism tax funding two previous years, but its third try appears to have proven the charm, said Janelle Long, the observatory's executive director.

Larson's proposed tourism tax allocations will go to the Duluth City Council for consideration on Monday.

While it's difficult to get an exact count, Long said survey results indicate that about 18,000 people visited the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory this year, mainly in the months of September and October, when migratory activity is most intense.

"We found that 85 percent of the people that are coming up to Hawk Ridge are people who are visiting from out of town, and a lot of them are coming specifically to go birdwatching during the fall migration. So they're staying at hotels in Duluth and they're certainly also eating out at our restaurants," Long said.

"As a small nonprofit, we want to be able to continue to engage with that audience, as well as our local community, and education is a big part of our mission. So having those funds will certainly help us make a greater impact both within our community and with the visiting tourists we attract," she said.

This year marks the second time the Duluth Children's Museum had sought tourism tax funding, said Cameron Kruger, the organization's president and CEO.

"We've been working for the past number of years to educate the mayor and city councilors about the work that we do, especially as an attraction," he said.

"Last year, Mayor Larson changed the process she uses to collect information and demographics and to really make sure those tax dollars were going to places that really spur our tourism economy," said Kruger, noting that the Children's Museum was able to make a strong case. This year, he said, the museum is on pace to exceed last year's attendance of 51,000 visitors.

Kruger considers the proposed $20,000 in tourism tax support a meaningful contribution.

"We're a $500,000 organization, so that amount of funding really is important for us to continue to sustain our work in serving the community and in drawing tourists into our facility, and that will go toward creating really cool experiences within the museum that are a draw and make people want to come to town to experience what we've got," he said.

About half the tourism taxes Duluth collects from hotels, motels, restaurants and drinking establishments is dedicated to fulfill specific designated obligations, including debts associated with the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, Spirit Mountain and projects along the St. Louis River corridor.

Larson has required other organizations to apply for funding, as the city determines how to distribute the remaining discretionary dollars.

"As our tourism economy continues to grow, so does the task to ensure that we are investing these financial resources wisely, transparently and with a positive visitor experience in mind," said Larson in a statement issued Tuesday.

"Having a robust tourism sector of this magnitude means having world-class attractions, museums and recreational experiences year round for our residents, too. For these reasons and more, it's critical we are good stewards of these investments," she said.