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Duluth tourism officials spend extra $125K to counter flood misperceptions

An ad campaign seeks to reassure tourists that Duluth is open for business in the wake of June's flooding.

The June 20 flooding that caused millions of dollars in Duluth really didn’t affect the hotels and waterfront attractions that brings thousands of tourists to the area every year.

The problems is: Lots of tourists seem to think it did.

And some think the city is still under water.

It’s not, and Duluth is spending a lot of money to let people know.

Have you seen the television ads running in the Twin Cities? They’re part of a $125,000 ad campaign to convince us that Duluth is open for business.

I was in Duluth on Sunday, and it looked good. And dry.

Canal Park was bustling as usual — it was tough finding a parking spot.

You may have heard Grandma’s Restaurant was flooded. True: The one near the Miller Hill Mall was. But not the original, landmark location near the Lift Bridge, which was left unscathed by the flood only to get smacked by a loss of business from those who didn’t show up because they thought it was closed.

Attendance was down a bit at Glensheen, where I was signing copies of my book about the Congdon murders. But a washed-out brick wall is the only evidence that water cascaded down the hill and overran the creek that runs through the property. There was no damage to the historic mansion, and it’s had no effect on the gardens or any part of what visitors see on the tours.

There are major problems in the city: The state has requested $108 million in federal disaster relief, and a special session of the state Legislature will be called next month to allocate emergency aid.

Gov. Mark Dayton is also asking the president for money to help private homeowners recover from the flood damage, most of which occurred in residential areas. More than 1,000 homes were damaged.

Somehow, the tourism industry escaped most of the damage.

Perception costs millions

That didn’t stop tourists from canceling reservations, though, especially in the first days.

The city’s tourism industry estimates it lost $3 million the first week after the flooding. The second week: probably $1 million to $2 million in losses, says Terry Mattson of Visit Duluth, the local convention and visitors bureau.

A month later, it seems to be getting better, .

“This past weekend was the first time that it seemed like a normal summer weekend,” said a manager at Grandma’s Restaurant on Canal Park.

The recovery might be the result in part of the massive ad campaign Duluth officials undertook to counter the flood of negative perceptions.

Mattson said $125,000 of emergency advertising — television, print and billboards  — was commissioned in the Twin Cities area to remind people that “Duluth is open for business.”

A city fund contributed $75,000, Visit Duluth put in $25,000 and the bureau’s members contributed $25,000 for the month-long emergency ad blitz.

Said Mattson: “There was no doubt that we had to ramp up our efforts to address the misconceptions.”

Counterintuitive flow

Canal Park, with seven hotels and 20 restaurants and dozens of shops, was largely spared.

“It seems counter-intuitive with so much water coming this way, but Canal Park was unscathed,” said Brad Daugherty, president of Grandma’s Restaurants. “All that water streaming down the hill went right through Canal Park and flowed nicely into giant Lake Superior.”

The flooding did cause major damage at the Grandma’s Restaurant near Miller Hill Mall, depositing about 16 inches of water in the building on low-lying ground, Daugherty said.

So all the news video showed Grandma’s, underwater.

“I can’t blame the media, or the people who saw the pictures. There was Grandma’s with water surrounding it, and they figured: ‘I’m not going there.’ They put two and two together and decided not to come.”

But the worst is over, Daugherty said. And the Miller Park Grandma’s is scheduled to open Aug. 6, he said.

“Duluth seems to be in full swing, again. Everyone got on the message, and we’ve put the word out,” he said.

The Glensheen visitor numbers are still down, but rebounding from the first weeks after the flood. Marketing director Lori Melton said Saturday’s attendance of 437 was down from the same Saturday last year of 537.

“We’re still a little slower, down about 100 people a day on average from last year,” she said. “But it’s coming back as people realize that the mansion and the gardens are in perfect shape.”

At the Lake Superior Zoo, which suffered the most-publicized damage when flooding killed many barnyard animals, the doors are open again.

The waters also destroyed the zoo’s Polar Exhibit, leaving the two seals (one of which was found swimming on Grand Avenue) and the Polar bear homeless. They’re now being kept at St. Paul’s Como Zoo.

The Lake Superior Zoo has lowered admission prices to reflect the missing exhibits: $8 for adults and $4 for children; down from $10 and $5.

A zoo employee said attendance is down, like at many of the city’s attractions, reflecting the flood concerns and also the steamy July weather.

A sign on the zoo’s big sign on Hwy. 23 says: “The animals miss you.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 07/25/2012 - 01:47 pm.

    I’m spending my vacation in Duluth

    Was going to spend some time with family in Wisconsin, but the Duluth area needs our help. Taking my mom and aunt to see North Shore for the first time.

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