DULUTH - St. Louis County, doubling back to a long-ignored Minnesota statute, is accepting proposals from businesses interested in leasing space at the Depot — an invitation some current tenants are concerned might push them out of the historic train station on Michigan Street.
Tenants of the 130-year-old building were told by the St. Louis County Attorney's Office that current leases expire at the end of 2022 and have been asked to submit a proposal by June 14 if they want to stay at the Depot. This opens up the building to new nonprofit and for-profit groups that might have use for its amenities — like nearly 7,000 square feet with a ready-made stage and access to a loading dock. Interested groups must fill out an application answering questions about usage, and include several letters of recommendation and rent bids.
Just yearlong contracts are available — the building is scheduled for capital improvements in the next few years, which could affect when different parts of the building are accessible.
The Depot's keepers are citing a statute that says the county cannot lease space in a property it owns without advertising for bids or proposals in the county's official newspaper. This is seemingly the first time the ruling has been put into action.
Mary Tennis, executive director at the Depot, said she was surprised when she got word about enforcing the statute and said there has been some pushback from longtime tenants. She said she sees the request for proposals as one of many changes toward improving operations.
"The statute has a great spirit to it," she said. "It's giving access to nonprofit arts and cultural organizations that could benefit from reduced rent rates."
Current tenants, including the Duluth Art Institute, Lake Superior Railroad Museum, North Shore Scenic Railroad, Minnesota Ballet and St. Louis County Historical Society, are not guaranteed a spot in the building.
The Duluth Playhouse announced that it was leaving the Depot earlier this year.
"This was like losing a family member," JoAnne Coombe of the St. Louis County Historical Society said of losing the theater company. "Tenants are nervous. We don't have a feel for what other for-profits or not for profits will be coming into the mix."
The uncertain future is a concern for the Duluth Art Institute, which has three galleries spanning the upper level of the Depot. Its staff requires a long lead time on exhibitions and needs to know where its galleries are located when it applies for grants. Board president Robin Washington said he doesn't understand the timing behind the request for proposals.
"We have no idea why now?" he said. "What is the emergency. I don't get it. There are a number of state laws that are not enforced and some are revisited and repealed. What is the hurry?"
The art institute's lease draws language from the same statute that is referenced as the reason for requiring a new application from the arts organization.
"Since the county entered into this lease agreement with us citing that statute, it means they knew or should have known what it said in its entirety," he said.
Coombe said the historical society has a long relationship with the building and that they have put significant financial investment into the Depot.
"The St. Louis County Historical Society will comply with the RFP [request for proposal] process and feels it has an excellent chance of retaining its space within the Depot facility — and perhaps acquiring more space," she said. "We've met with county leadership and have received assurances that there is recognition of our unique statutory responsibility to collect and preserve the history of St. Louis County."
The Duluth Union Depot was completed in 1892 and about 80 years later it was put on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1974, it became the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center. Tennis and current tenants have worked together to create a vision of what the building could be like in 2025, a narrative that includes people, pastries and gift shops and a mix of interactive spaces and places for lounging.
The Depot's unique history and access to railroad tracks has Lake Superior Railroad Museum director Ken Buehler confident that his organization will stay on site.
"How are you going to move a 566-ton, 128-foot Yellowstone locomotive?" he said. "Where's that going to go?"