Historic Duluth depot needs $8 million fix

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DULUTH, Minn. — It's been a landmark in Duluth since 1892, but the historic Union Depot is showing its age with a leaking front balcony and crumbling bricks.

Officially called the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center, the Depot is in need of $8 million in repairs, deferred upkeep and upgrades, a private engineering firm reported to county officials.

St. Louis County, which owns the building, is willing to pony-up about $2.25 million of that total and is ready to ask the state for the other $5.75 million in upcoming state construction/bonding bills.

The St. Louis County Board of Commissioners recently approved the Depot as its top priority for bonding money, which isn't likely to come until 2019.

Until then the county is prepared to spend $500,000 to shore up the old wooden and iron balcony above the main entrance into the facility as well as conduct some emergency tuckpointing to replace grout between crumbling bricks on the old Depot's exterior.

"It's got some issues, both externally with the tuckpointing and internally, functional stuff like electrical and mechanical issues,'' said Tony Mancuso, the county's property management director. "We own it. We need to keep it up."

Patrick Boyle, St. Louis County Commissioner representing eastern Duluth, said the Depot needs a major infusion now to serve the city for another 100 years.

"I compare this to what the city did with Enger Tower: Fix it up right and it's good for another century,'' Boyle said.

The $8 million in capital improvements is on top of the roughly $160,000 subsidy the county already contributes annually to keep the building running, money that comes from the county's share of property taxes. That's combined with about $200,000 in Duluth city tourism taxes that goes to operations, along with some rent and gate receipts paid by the groups that call the Depot home.

The building houses an eclectic mix of tenants, including the Duluth Art Institute, Duluth Playhouse, Lake Superior Railroad Museum, North Shore Scenic Railroad, Minnesota Ballet, St. Louis County Historical Society, Arrowhead Chorale, Veterans Memorial Hall and other groups and exhibits. It also hosts dozens of special events, from weddings and exhibits to the city's Veterans Day event.

The county contracted with Oneida Realty to manage the property after the former management collaborative collapsed in bankruptcy in 2005.

St. Louis County now appears resigned to keeping the building, but that wasn't always the case. The county was asked in the early 1970s to serve as the fiscal conduit for a major nonprofit, volunteer effort to save the building from the wrecking ball.

"From what we can tell, the county was supposed to be a bridge to accept the building from the railroad, pass it on to a nonprofit foundation and then get out,'' Mancuso said. "But that never really happened.''

Mancuso said the county is legally bound to remain landlord as long as state bonds are outstanding or the state grant would have to be paid back. State and federal money were used to pay for things such as the addition of the Duluth Playhouse annex in 1977, a new roof on the main Depot structure in 2001 and the train shed in 2009.

Moreover, the sheer size of the Depot — estimated at nearly $16 million to replace, some 113,000 square feet — makes it too expensive for most groups to deal with.

"I think it's just too big for any nonprofit to handle,'' Boyle said. "It's ours, and I think that's not a bad thing. The Depot is really the focalpoint of arts and heritage in our city, in our county, and we are making an investment in that."

County Board Chairman Frank Jewell of Duluth agreed.

"It's a difficult property to manage. We need to keep the conversation going about what we want to see it be in the future,'' Jewell said. "But it's an iconic building to Duluth and we have to keep it up."

Boyle said it's also critical to keep the Depot in public hands as the terminus of the proposed NLX passenger rail service linking the Twin Ports to the Twin Cities. While the historic building would not be used as the new train depot, the new facility would be built immediately behind the old building and passengers likely would exit onto Duluth streets through the historic building.

"That's going to be a very busy area when NLX comes online, and the old Depot has to be ready to handle that,'' Boyle said.

Oneida's management agreement, last renewed in 2012, expires at the end of 2017. Mancuso said the county is reaching out to city officials, nonprofits and Oneida on what the county can do "to make the building successful into the future? We're just getting ready to have that discussion."

While it may now be the city's cultural hub, the Depot once was the city's hub of transportation. It served seven different railroad lines and housed the railroad offices, a newsstand, barber shop, parcel room and lunch room. By 1900 the building handled 26 trains a day and as many as 5,000 passengers.

But passenger rail service faded quickly after World War II and the building saw its last train in 1969. The Depot was then slated for demolition but was saved by historic activists and was spared after it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. It served as the Amtrak depot for limited passenger rail between Duluth and the Twin Cities from 1975 to 1985.