DULUTH – The Duluth City Council has agreed to contract with a Twin Cities agency and its partner to market the city to tourists, a break from 86 years of letting Visit Duluth steer those efforts.

Several council members said Monday night that the $1.8 million proposal was the most important vote they have considered — not for the cost, which is paid for by tourism taxes, but for the message it sends and the high stakes for one of Duluth's most important industries.

After several hours of discussion and a presentation by Edina-based Bellmont Partners and partner agency Lawrence & Schiller, the council voted 7-1 to move ahead with the two.

The council will vote on a full contract at a future meeting.

"I believe it is time for change," said Council Member Gary Anderson. "We're not signing a contract for the next 86 years. … This is a good path for us to be on today."

The proposal announced by Mayor Emily Larson last week provoked a backlash among residents and business owners. Dozens of them e-mailed the City Council and spoke Monday night in support of continuing with the Visit Duluth tourism bureau, which finished fourth in a competitive bidding process this summer that drew more than two dozen applicants.

"If you're touting a 3 to 4 percent increase in tourism taxes, something that's done routinely here already, isn't this a big, cumbersome, awkward, divisive road to go down for such uncertainty?" said Brian Daugherty, president of Grandma's Restaurant Co.

Visit Duluth leaders made a last-minute pitch to City Council on Monday night, saying the nonprofit had adopted new technology and moved away from a "pay for play" model that some businesses said kept them from accessing public money. Nearly all of the tourism bureau's funding comes from city tourism tax dollars.

"We respectfully ask for the opportunity to consider serving the community we love," said Visit Duluth CEO Anna Tanski.

Duluth Chief Administrative Officer Noah Schuchman said it was too little, too late, and that the results of the bidding process were clear.

"It was disappointing to all of us," he said. "Ultimately, we are here to talk about the best candidate to represent all of Duluth for marketing work."

Larson told the City Council in an e-mail last week that "allocating millions of dollars in public funds without a competitive process is wrong. That's on us as a city. We notified this intent to Visit Duluth eight months ago and publicly announced the process in May, five months later."

A proposal to give Visit Duluth $400,000 in convention sales and event marketing was tabled as more details are worked out with the nonprofit, which has not decided if it will accept the drastic reduction in services.

Council Member Janet Kennedy said keeping Visit Duluth in the picture could be a "win-win," but she cautioned that tourism can't be the city's only focus.

"If this is what's going to make or break our community, we're doing it wrong," Kennedy said. "Why are we only invested in tourism when there's a lot more going on in our communities?"

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496