DULUTH – The Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (DECC) could be the future home of a waterfront promenade and outdoor movie theater, its new executive director said Tuesday.

Dan Hartman, who replaces interim director Roger Reinert on Monday, shared post-pandemic plans for the publicly funded venue at a Duluth Chamber of Commerce lunch.

Possibilities include closing the road that runs behind the DECC along the waterfront — Harbor Drive — and turning the area into a "community plaza" and pedestrian walkway connecting Bayfront Park to Canal Park, Hartman said.

"This has significant potential, in my opinion, for the future of the DECC," he said, and the city of Duluth.

Including the caveat that this "may not happen," his movie theater idea includes placing a screen out in Duluth Harbor, allowing people to watch from shore. Other outdoor spaces might include a wedding venue and a beach-like area with patio furniture, he said.

Hartman, coming from a leadership role at Glensheen Mansion, takes over the DECC after a tough era for the regional tourism hub, devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The DECC, which laid off 400 employees over the course of the pandemic, has asked the state to pay up to $6 million in debt payments on its Amsoil Arena over the next two years. The DECC's revenue dropped $5.8 million in 2020 after COVID-19 forced cancellations of in-person events. The convention center also depends on a cut of Duluth's tourism tax collections, which were off by about one-third in 2020.

Reinert, speaking before Hartman at the chamber luncheon, shared some of the pandemic's effects on the 800,000-square-foot complex: It held just 96 events in 2020, compared with 513 in 2019, and the number of conventions went from 53 to nine, with most of those in the early part of 2020.

At "the lowest of the low," Reinert said, about a dozen full-time staff members and a few part-time workers were operating the entire facility. But looking ahead, he said, 39 summer events are scheduled at Bayfront Park.

In 1963, the Legislature created the DECC Board, which does not have taxing authority. The convention center's operations are funded mainly by customer revenue, while capital improvements largely have been covered by the state and the city of Duluth. The DECC received $500,000 in COVID-19 relief from the state.

The DECC includes an auditorium, ballrooms, two arenas and the William A. Irvin boat museum. During the pandemic, it has been a site for vaccinations and COVID-19 testing.

Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450