DULUTH – It was just over a year ago that a crowd of 1,200 heard the good news from the city's business leaders: Everything is coming up Duluth.
"We were on the verge of our golden era," said Matt Baumgartner, director of government relations for Grandma's Restaurant Co. and past chair of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce board. "What a year it has been."
The Duluth chamber marked 150 years on Thursday amid one of the most challenging business environments of all time. Compared with last fall, unemployment in the city has more than doubled, and some businesses are worried about making it through the winter, especially without another round of federal coronavirus relief.
So, as the 150th annual meeting ditched the typical clattering of silverware on plates and hushed conversations for an all-digital sesquicentennial celebration, it was with the usual upbeat tone against an unusually grim backdrop.
"There has been pain and suffering … yet here we are," said chamber CEO David Ross. "None of us anticipated what would happen early this year."
The number of people working or looking for work in Duluth has reached its lowest level in decades. Hundreds have lost their jobs at hospitals, hotels and restaurants and the now-shuttered Verso paper mill and AAR airplane maintenance facility.
And while a $1 billion investment continues in the city's medical district, other projects, like a high-rise apartment complex on Superior Street, have been delayed.
"We had big plans," Baumgartner said. "We cannot give up and we cannot give in."
The chamber, formed just months after Duluth was incorporated in 1870, has steadfastly served business interests in a city with a long history of labor politics. The chamber strongly opposed the earned sick and safe time ordinance while it was advancing through the Duluth City Council, though once it passed the group offered support on implementing the measure.
In recent years, groups like the Greater Duluth Business Association have taken on a more confrontational role while the chamber and its 1,100 members have focused on collaboration with city leaders.
"There are a few consistencies we can count on," Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said Thursday. "We will always have dialogue. We will always have each other. We will always have this beautiful lake."
Ross also evoked Lake Superior in his speech at the virtual birthday party, quoting from Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha": "Bright before it beat the water, beat the clear and sunny water, beat the shining big-sea-water."
It has been a tumultuous year not just for the businesses the chamber serves but the organization itself.
Accountant Jesse Frye pleaded guilty this year to swindling $235,000 from the chamber through his business, Eagle Accounting. The chamber typically brings in about $1.2 million in yearly revenue, according to tax records.
And while most businesses and nonprofits were eligible for federal coronavirus relief loans and grants, 501(c)(6) organizations like the chamber could not apply for forgivable loans through the popular Paycheck Protection Program.
The incoming chair of the chamber's board, University of Minnesota Duluth senior associate athletic director Karen Stromme, said "we will come through this difficult time stronger."
"As a former coach, I know teams are at the top of their game when they know their teammates will work together to support one another."