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Commissioner resigns, halts Superior tourism panel's work

Mayor Jim Paine remains confident, despite challenges, that the city's Tourism Development Commission will be good for tourism.

Government Center in Superior
A couple eats dinner on paddle boards off of Wisconsin Point Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, as they watch the Mesabi Miner pass by on its way to the Superior Entry on Lake Superior.
Jed Carlson / File / Superior Telegram
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SUPERIOR — Superior’s decision to change the way it manages tourism hit a bump in the road Monday, May 9, when one commissioner resigned and left, ending the meeting abruptly in the face of uncertainty.

At issue were two grant applications from organizations previously supported by revenue collected from the city’s hotel/motel tax.

After nearly two hours of discussion that ended with Travel Superior getting less than half what it was seeking to run the Welcome Center in the Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center, Commissioner Mark Johnson proposed referring a grant application from the Bong Center to another meeting.

“There’s constraints on time for several of us here,” Johnson said.

“I do know that we meet a lot,” said Lindsey Graskey, commission chair. “This is a redraft, and I know it’s getting late, but at the same time, this has been pushed along as well.”

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The grant application has been in front of the tourism development commission since the beginning of March. During the commission’s second meeting in April, Travel Superior and the Bong Center were asked to respond to many questions, which resulted in both organizations redrafting their applications.

“I thank you guys for a very modest redraft,” said Bruce Barron, who represents the hotel industry on the commission. “This is murky territory right away for me … I’m essentially looking at an operating proposal and whether we tear that up to support it is up to each individual.”

He said the proposal would require serious discussion before he could support it, but he would have to leave the meeting because he had another commitment.

“We need a little bit of time here; they’re an important group," Barron said. "I respect them, but I don’t think tonight’s the time.”

Mayor Jim Paine acknowledged Barron’s commitment but argued in favor of continuing the discussion Monday night.

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“It’s been several weeks of preparation,” Paine said. “We’ve had a number of meetings where we did not have a full commission and every commissioner’s voice is valuable, but so is the time this organization has put into this as well as the rest of the commissioners. I do hope that we can continue discussion.”

Commissioner Pattie Soliday agreed the discussion should continue.

“With that said, since I don’t intend to be here tonight to vote, and I wouldn’t want to be voting against people I respect, I will tender my resignation immediately, so that I’m not put into that position,” Barron said. “We do have clear differences on what the law says and what it doesn’t say … There are clear ethical stretches that I’ve had to make here today, and I’m not willing to do that where the law is concerned.”

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Barron’s decision to leave the meeting raised questions about the committee’s ability to meet because he represented the hotel industry, and the meeting adjourned promptly.

“We apologize,” Soliday said to John Gidley, director of the Bong Center. “Hopefully we can get that position filled yesterday … and ask you to come back.”

Barron will be the fourth commissioner on the six-member panel to be replaced from the body originally appointed in September, which includes a city councilor who did not seek reelection.

Paine said since Monday night’s meeting he has learned the commission can resume its business without filling the vacancy immediately.

“Even with Mr. Barron’s resignation, the seat remains his until it’s filled,” he said.

Paine said he has a healthy list of potential appointees and will take the time necessary to ensure the right individual is appointed.

The mayor said he anticipated challenges when the city made the transition to managing tourism with a tourism development commission.

“It’s an entirely new process and more complex one,” Paine said. “We intend to give more money to more people, and it’s going to be all new people issuing that money and that’s bound to be a bumpy process.”

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The second challenge is a poorly written state law that makes it difficult for cities to do what is needed to improve the city and tourism, the mayor said.

“It’s easier for people to wrangle over what means what,” Paine said. “There was bound to be some challenges, but I’m actually still very confident that it’s going to work out.”

Shelley Nelson is a reporter with the Duluth Media Group since 1997, and has covered Superior and Douglas County communities and government for the Duluth News Tribune from 1999 to 2006, and the Superior Telegram since 2006. Contact her at 715-395-5022 or snelson@superiortelegram.com.
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