In the fall and winter of 2019, St. Louis County Depot staff came together with several Depot tenant organizations to create a vision for the future. The process included several sessions of brainstorming, analysis, conversation, and creative thinking and culminated in the following ideas for the future.
We used the Zingerman’s approach to visioning: meaning we wanted to create a clear, measurable, achievable, but highly aspirational vision. St. Louis County Depot staff stitched all the collected information together and wrote a broadcast from the future: The Depot 2025 Vision.
It’s Fall 2025, and it’s a fantastic time to be at the Depot!
Our building is thriving on all fronts – we have been undergoing system upgrades since 2021 and they have made our building comfortable, well-lit, and easier to maintain on a daily basis. We have reached a baseline so that instead of “patching mode,” we are on a preventative maintenance schedule. This means that we are able to enjoy a comfortable environment and at the same time put a little capital into future projects (we’re about to publish our vision 2030, after all). Additionally, we have a united signage/design program that has created unity in all our common/public areas while still allowing each tenant to show their unique offerings. Our signage includes a mixture of stationary, directional signage, interactive, dynamic displays, and screens with ever-changing event/exhibit/promotional materials. There is a healthy mix of interactivity and leisure at the Depot, with several common areas developed into “pit stops” for guests and opportunities for pictures/social media moments. Our portico area has been restored and is back to its full glory – we just celebrated Twin Ports Pride with the Mayor’s proclamation kick-off and, partnering with our strong relationship we now have developed with the library, took over Michigan Street, the library courtyard, and the Great Hall! Guests enjoyed our new outdoor patio furniture, lovely potted garden, and having drinks served to them by one of our new vendors. Guests easily stream in and out of the reopened Great Hall doors, which have been updated to mitigate HVAC stress and now welcome all visitors to the Depot (though theatre-goers can still use the alternate entrances).
The space where our front desk used to be is now part of our merchandise/vendor program, and it’s perfectly tucked away while still unavoidable for the average guest. Sales for merchandise have reached a net of $100,000 for 2024, and we hope this number is increased by 5% at the end of 2025. We all agree that the hallway is much improved by the carpet replacement and fresh coat of paint.
Our guests are at an all-time high: in social media rankings, in our own surveys/outreach, in attendance numbers, and in donation money. They love coming in through the Great Hall: it inspires wonder but is also a welcoming, easily discernible space for folks to navigate. They can go in any direction to find exhibits, entertainment, amusements, and education. They also have multiple choices for refreshments. They can grab a fine cup of coffee, a pastry/muffin, a beer, and even some protein options from the several kiosks stationed in the Great Hall and beyond in the cafeteria/classroom space that we have designated for school groups, birthday parties, and sloppy-fun educational projects! As if that wasn’t enough, we have jumped on the food truck bandwagon and now have food trucks during the day (seasonally) on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Our guests are greeted with music (often live) as we have coordinated with area musicians and musical groups to fill our Great Hall with lively (though not blaring) sound. When our guests enter, they are welcomed by our greeters who stand near the entrance in order to guide folks and let them know all the possibilities of the space.
Our tour programs regularly sell out. We have switched to a donation-based system but offer several paid tours on a daily basis during the summer/fall seasons. These tours cater to a wide range of audiences, from folks who are interested in the development of mining drills to others who want to learn about the local vibrant creative community of Anishinabe artisans to ghost hunters who firmly believe in bumps in the night, we have tours that captivate just about any audience. It doesn’t hurt that we offer people lots of amenities along the way and are more than willing to go “off-script” with jokes and anecdotes: our mix of volunteers and paid tour staffers are absolutely the best at accommodating mostly everyone and have really raised the customer service bar. Just last week, we had a group of 120 German tourists who spent the day with us. We circulated them throughout the building in smaller groups so that they were able to enjoy each space with breaks in between. After they were suitably engaged with art, culture, and a short train ride, they were able to come back and purchase gifts and memorabilia from our small gift shop, which offers individual organizations’ goods like magnets, t-shirts, books, and water bottles, but also features a carefully curated collection of jewelry and locally-crafted items from all over St Louis County. This, compiled with donations, has led us to break even with hopes of growing programming enough to start a capital investment fund in order to develop some updated dedicated space to tour management/facilitation and our emerging education department.
As if offering our guests dynamic exhibits and premium entertainment wasn’t enough, we also have a rotating cast of St Louis County tourism experts who (along with the help of maps, brochures, booklets, and the trusty internet) can give advice to travelers who wish to wander deeper into our vast county. We even have synched up with some local/county-wide tour companies so that we can offer regular departures to all points north (and some south and west), right from our own front doors. We have monthly touch-base meetings with our friends from all over St Louis County, including historical society affiliates, tourism bureaus, chambers of commerce, hotels, and other attractions so that the Depot can continue to advocate and amplify our region as a destination and a cultural resource for everyone.
Events are spectacular at the Depot. A few times a year, our Great Hall is transformed into various markets. We have a wonderful Thanksgiving Market that hosts a plethora of local foods, gifts, and special events. We have an Iron Range Food Fest. We host a “train of food” weekend, featuring fine coffees, baked goods, and sandwiches from several local vendors. We have several events during the holidays, and have become a celebrated warming hut for winter revelers looking to warm themselves (and maybe buy a gift our two) in between holiday stops.
At night, we are able to host more music, arts, and entertainment. Guests come in through the Great Hall and can see a world-class show at the Underground, have a drink at one of our kiosks (or elsewhere if the train museum is featuring jazz or the Underground/Family Theater are open for business), and enjoy some of our nighttime offerings: Movies on Michigan; DSSO After Dark; College Night Presents (could be disco, could be bingo); and many other entertaining, enriching offerings. A few times a year, we are closed to the public in order to host fundraisers for our tenants. Each annual event has an appropriate price tag as the Great Hall is known as a premium venue in our community, and even so, tickets usually sell out well in advance. We will even host weddings and other private events from time to time, as long as they don’t interfere with the public’s enjoyment of the space. Needless to say, the Depot, by all accounts, is a good place to party.
Our exhibits are also earning us much appreciation throughout social media land and beyond. Tenants have been hard at work rotating out objects and artifacts, keeping the public engaged and delighted. World-class art is still a feature of Duluth Art Institute, but our new wayfinding program and tour coordinators have helped put DAI at the forefront of our building. They help facilitate a public art program in formerly fallow parts of the building which has engaged the public so much that some of the pieces have gone viral! This has really helped raise awareness about the importance of art in everyday lives, and DAI’s donations are through the roof.
Our historical exhibits are doing equally as well. There are new items and talking points around every corner, and, with the cooperation of our tour programming and our educational department, the people of St Louis County have started to think of the collections here as not only a great asset, but a requirement in many curriculums. This summer we had a three-day intensive with high school engineering students who explored the world of the steam engine. They helped clean, assemble, and run a steam train, and even spent the night at the museum.
As busy as our two theaters are, we have been able to synch up with them and feature interactive, didactic signage that clearly informs visitors about the Playhouse’s history and current successes. We have a small display up now through Thanksgiving that features props from the Playhouse’s past, along with an oral history of the Playhouse and a recording of “Playhouse Greatest Hits: vol 1.” Favorite tracks are Magic from “Xanadu” and The Origin of Love from “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
We also have Depot-driven events and exhibits that we devise to engage all who may visit, from wrestling to mimes. In 2023, we had “hockey” as a theme throughout, with memorabilia, testimonials, and professionals stopping by and hosting train trips. Next year, we plan to showcase a collection of Faberge eggs – with demonstrations for kids in the Classroom, a (faux) Faberge egg hunt in the train museum, and the real McCoys on display in the Fessler Gallery (with quite a bit of security). We also have been coordinating with other area attractions like Glensheen, Giant’s Ridge, Camp Esquagama, the Aquarium, Zeitgeist, Bentleyville, and the William A Irvin to sponsor joint exhibits, events, and wayfinding – through trains, trolleys, busses, bikesharing, and even a rickshaw! We love partnering with as many attractions as possible, as this widespread collaborative effort has had a measurable impact on Duluth’s visitor traffic and indeed the whole of the Arrowhead and St Louis County.
More people are finding the Depot as well: the City of Duluth as well as Canal Park Business Association, Greater Downtown Council, and Visit Duluth have really helped in our pursuit to get signage on I-35, downtown, and increase the signage in the skywalk and lakewalk. Additionally, since the overpass connecting us to Bayfront has been improved for pedestrians with a traffic barrier, we have been able to secure signage and even paint the sidewalk so that there is a very clear link between us and the wonderful attractions of our waterfront. Additionally, we have been working very closely with the library to join public spaces together. There is talk of perhaps even building a skywalk or blocking off our shared block of Michigan Street and creating a green space between the two community hubs (with room for food trucks, of course!).
We have counted, through ordinary daily admission and booked tours, 100,000 visitors in 2024, and we are hoping to surpass that number to 125,000 in 2025. More importantly, through surveys and general feedback, our guests feel at home at the Depot, even when coming from afar. Our staffers, volunteers, docents, and leaders are all mobilized, engaged, and excited about Depot Vision 2030, and are proud to offer this incredible community resource to the fantastic residents of St Louis County and beyond. Most of us leave the building feeling deep down that we have made a contribution, and have tried to improve the quality of life for every individual who made a stop at the Depot.