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Longtime DECC director Russell to retire in August

Dan Russell DNT Steve KucheraThe Duluth News Tribune reports Dan Russell will retire Aug. 31 after 27 years as executive director of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, which includes Amsoil Arena, the City Side Convention Center, the Harborside Convention Center, a movie theater complex and two parking ramps. The DECC also manages Bayfront Festival Park and operates the retired William A. Irvin ship as a floating attraction.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working for 27 years at a place that makes people smile, because they’re coming here for concerts, sporting events, boat shows and all kinds of other fun events,” Russell said in a news release issued today. “It’s also where I get to interact with 500 great employees who work very hard to make everything the DECC does look easy. It’s been an honor to work here.”

The DECC Board intends to engage a professional search firm to assist in identifying its next executive director. A subcommittee has already been formed to lead this effort, and expects the search process to begin in March.

“Dan has built the DECC to be one of the best entertainment and convention complexes in the entire country, so I expect we’ll get a lot of interest from many qualified candidates,” DECC Board Chair Jay Seiler said in the news release.

Below is a profile of Russell published in the now-defunct Duluth-Superior Magazine in August 2008.
 

A True Original: Dan Russell is a founding father of Duluth tourism
By Paul Lundgren

Consider Dan Russell a study in contrasts. He’s a respected leader who’s constantly joking around. He’s an avid outdoorsman in charge of Duluth’s largest indoor entertainment facilities. And he’s a competitive man with a strong record of winning, though fate has dealt him some devastating personal losses.

He seems a perfect fit as executive director of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, totally at ease chatting with monster truck enthusiasts, square dancers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, marathon runners and everyone in between.

When a new hockey arena is completed in 2010, the DECC will have seen expansions totaling more than $130 million under Russell’s leadership. Annual operating revenue has grown from $1.6 million in 1989 to over $8 million today.

His hard work and ability to produce big results from seemingly outlandish ideas have earned him much respect over the years, but his easygoing style and devotion to family and friends are the qualities the make him one of Duluth’s most beloved citizens.

“Dan is a true original,” said Charles “Huck” Andresen, a partner in the Andresen & Butterworth law firm in Duluth and a former DECC board member who voted to hire Russell. “I think if there’s anybody who has really spurred the creation of the tourism industry in Duluth, it’s Dan. I think he helped create what Duluth is today. Dan does get credit for a lot of good things in Duluth, but damn it he deserves it.”

Bob Hom, the DECC’s director of operations, agrees. He said even though the first convention center expansion was well under construction before Russell was hired, it was still largely his doing.

“It was pretty much his idea,” Hom said. “He went out with Mayor (John) Fedo and got the money to do that.”

At the time, Russell was executive director of the Duluth Convention and Visitors Bureau, now known as Visit Duluth. He held that position for 11 years, ushering in an era of phenomenal growth in tourism for the city.

DCVB Days

A native of South Minneapolis, and a former University of Minnesota Duluth student, Russell was 24 years old when he saw the DCVB position advertised. “I didn’t have a car,” Russell said. “My sister drove me up for the interview.” He was eager to return to Duluth and excited the DCVB job came with a car.

His first move as head of the DCVB was leading a six-month battle to separate from the chamber of commerce. He then launched an aggressive campaign to attract tourists to Duluth.

“He correctly perceived when he took that job that most of our tourism comes from the Twin Cities,” said Larry Oakes, northern Minnesota correspondent for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “He didn’t have a big budget, but he figured out — or knew instinctively — that it didn’t matter if you had an advertising budget if you did interesting and off the wall stuff.”

For one television ad, Russell hired Bob Denver and Alan Hale to reprise their Gilligan’s Island roles. Gilligan and the Skipper floated into Duluth on an inflatable safety raft, with the tagline “Cast away in Duluth this summer.”

 

In another ad, Kojak star Telly Savalas strolls through Glensheen Mansion and asks, “Duluth, who loves ya baby? I do.”

 

Russell also put together a series of commercials featuring comedian Al Franken (now a candidate for U.S. Senate) as the Duluth Answer Man, with his writing partner, Tom Davis, playing the role of a confused tourist. In one spot, the confused tourist asks, “When they release the bulls, will I have enough time to get my family indoors?” The Duluth Answer Man deadpans, “I believe you’re thinking of Pamplona, Spain. However, the smelt run every spring in Duluth.”

 

 

 

The DECC

When Russell took over at the DECC in 1990 he knew he had a tough job ahead of him, not just to market the new convention space, but to put a stop to employee theft.

“Dan knew about the theft coming in,” Hom said. “It wasn’t a secret. People knew we had problems here. I knew we had problems here. It was just hard getting it resolved under the former management.”

After two employees were convicted of embezzlement and theft, Mark Dayton, then the state auditor, praised Russell and the DECC for handling the problems.

“People were thrilled to see Dan come in and clean up the mess,” Hom said. “He came in like the new sheriff in town.”

Russell said it’s his job to make sure there are no controversies at the DECC, and the board isn’t embarrassed. That doesn’t mean the occasional bizarre incident doesn’t occur from time to time, however.

For example, in 2004 construction workers found live mortar shells buried in the ground during site preparation for building the Duluth 10 movie theaters.

“Of course, the bomb disposal units would come down from the Guard Base and blow them up and all of downtown would shake,” Russell said. “It sure did slow down work, but the project superintendent, Stumpy, didn’t care one bit.”

Few seemed to remember that 40 years earlier, before construction of the original arena, 50 rounds had been found. The shells were presumably from the old Duluth Iron and Metal Co., a salvage operation that handled war surplus materials.

A more recent example of strange happenings at the DECC occurred in June, when two horses broke free from the Aad Shriners Pro Rodeo and ran off into Canal Park, where they smashed into a minivan.

Russell said it’s misadventures like those that keep the job interesting and keep him laughing.

One of those situations, however, did manage to generate some controversy. His defiance of Minnesota’s smoking ban in 2005 may be the only public relations blunder of his career. Still, he shrugs it off as having been “blown out of proportion.”

Long before the smoking ban had been enacted, the DECC entered a contract with the Minnesota Operators of Music and Amusements to host a dart tournament. The contract stipulated that smoking would be allowed, and rather than risk losing $90,000 in alcohol sales, Russell chose to allow smoking. He argued that the U.S. Constitution was on his side because it forbids states from passing any law that impairs the obligation of contract.

Russell ended up paying $1,000 — the largest smoking ban fine St. Louis County has issued.

“He paid it,” Hom said. “Everybody thinks the DECC paid it. Well, you can’t give a ticket to a building. Dan paid it. He didn’t get reimbursed. He paid the $1,000. That was his.”

One year later, Duluthians gave the DECC a strong endorsement when 61percent of voters approved a .75 percent increase to the city’s restaurant and bar sales tax to pay for a new hockey arena and parking ramp. Although the project appeared destined to receive money in the state’s bonding bill in 2006 and again in 2007, it was left out until 2008, when Russell’s persistence paid off and the Legislature allocated $38 million.

The new 300,000-square-foot arena will seat 7,000, increasing capacity for UMD Bulldog hockey games by 2,100 and providing additional space for concerts and conventions.

The new facility will be the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified arena in the world. Russell said the goal is to use 50 percent of the energy a comparable facility would.

“We really started this environmental mission several years ago in the existing facility,” Russell said. “The entire facility is heated with waste (from the Duluth city steam plant). We saved $225,000 last year.”

The DECC received the Governor’s Minnesota Great Award in February for its efforts to reduce waste and minimize its impact on the environment. Russell credits the DECC’s food service director, Chelly Townsend, for pushing him toward sounder environmental practices.

“I’ve been blessed to have a core group of women managers at the DECC,” Russell said. “If there’s one management thing I’ve figured out it’s: hire women. The other one is: go golfing.”

Russell was echoing sentiments he expressed in April when he was surprised with a Joel Labovitz Entrepreneurial Success Award for entrepreneurial leadership in the public sector. He said the women in his life were responsible for his success, including his wife, who tricked him into attending the event.

Seventh Child of a Seventh Child

It’s no surprise that Russell is quick to credit the women in his life for shaping it; he grew up surrounded by them. The last of Harry and Elizabeth Russell’s seven children, Dan had five sisters. Harry Russell was also the seventh child in his family, creating quite a generational stretch. Dan’s grandfather was born in 1864.

When Dan was 6 years old, his father Harry died of a heart attack. A widow at 48, his mother set about putting seven kids through college. “She went out and got her real estate license and her driver’s license,” Dan said. “She did extremely well selling real estate. She was absolutely remarkable.”

Dan studied journalism in college, attending UMD for three years and the main campus in Minneapolis for one, but he did not graduate. His first marriage ended with a divorce in 1980, but produced two children, Jennifer and Dan Jr.

Mysterious Disease

Dan later married Carolyn McLoughlin and added two more children, Mary and Tim. Things took a tragic turn when Carolyn began to lose her hearing. Doctors had no explanation at first. Eventually, the diagnosis was mitochondrial disease, a malfunction of the substructures inside human cells.
Mitochondria are supposed to convert food into a chemical that cells use for energy. When they don’t, the result is a steady decline in muscles and nerves as cells die. There is no cure. Carolyn died in 2002 at age 42.
The Russell family’s battle with mitochondrial disease would unfortunately continue. Dan and Carolyn’s son Tim had a stroke at age 7 and fought the disease for a decade before he died in February, shortly after his 18th birthday.

Despite all of that tragedy, Dan amazes his friends and colleagues with his positive outlook.

“All through that, he never lost the optimism,” Hom said. “Never.”

Dan kept his family’s struggle largely to himself at work, Hom said. “You’d never hear anything. You’d have to ask, and even then he’d tell you very little. Most of the staff was pretty unaware of the seriousness of it for a good part of the time.”

Oakes said Russell’s strong connections with family and friends helped him work through his emotions outside the workplace.

“He feels things deeply,” Oakes said. “I cannot imagine going through some of the challenges and hardships he’s gone through and still retain his sense of humor, his compassion for others. As far as I can tell there’s not a bitter bone in his body. He’s never felt sorry for himself. I always wondered where he got the energy to do everything he had to do with his wife and son sick at the same time. All those trips to the hospital, all those trips to New York to talk to specialists.”

Andresen said keeping the DECC moving forward must have been extremely difficult for Russell. “During some of the toughest times, you know, he’s down at the Legislature lobbying like crazy to get funds for the new hockey arena. He managed to do a very good juggling act to get it done.”

New Love

It was in the final years of Tim’s life that Dan fell in love with Michelle Mike. They’ve been married nearly four years, but the relationship started slowly.

“Tim is who I fell in love with,” Michelle said. “Tim is the one that captured my heart. I was drawn to him and just felt something put into my heart that this is what I was meant to do, to be there for him and help care for him and be a part of his life.”

Michelle, a Grand Portage native who attended school in Grand Marais, was the local director of the Muscular Dystrophy Association when she met Tim. “I knew that his disease fell under the MDA umbrella and my goal was to get to know him and get him to trust me so that I could have him come to summer camp with me,” she said. “Then Dan could have respite care. He’d get a break and Tim would be having the time of his life for a week.”

This led to Dan and Michelle becoming close. “I’d come over to their house to visit Tim and pretty soon Dan and I just became best friends,” she said.

When Dan suggested Michelle should date him, she initially resisted. “He had just lost his wife, and I wanted to make sure that he wasn’t in a vulnerable situation and that he had grieved,” she said. “When it did come to the time where I said, ‘OK, I’ll date you,’ we asked Tim if it was OK. Then, later, Dan asked Tim if it was OK if he married me, and Tim was all for it.”

They married at Stony Point on a windy November day. “The waves were crashing up,” Michelle remembers. “It was fun, but it was kind of, I think, a reminder that we were about to go through a pretty heavy storm, and making that commitment we could make it through.”

Michelle said their faith and love continues to help them through Tim’s recent death.

“He dealt with this terrible disease with more courage and spirit than anyone could imagine,” she said. “He had a spirit that just lifted up a room. Always positive. He really helped me to focus on what’s important—living for the moment, for the day. Because you just don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”

Dan and Michelle added to the family three years ago. Their daughter, Grace, is 30 years younger than Dan’s oldest daughter.

“I think when you have children from 33 to 3, that’s Rod Stewart-like,” Russell said.

The Future

Michelle is a holistic health practioner, trained in holistic healing, herbal medicine and holistic nutrition. “I do that in conjunction with healing touch, which is an energy-based healing treatment,” she said.

She works part time, out of the home, but is considering expanding her practice. She said Dan’s inspiration and positive attitude will keep them going despite what they’ve been through.

“The past 15 years have been an incredible journey for him,” she said. “I’ve been with him for the past four or five of those years. He never waivers. … No one has ever inspired me to be the best that I can be the way that Dan has. His ability to inspire plays out in all areas of his life, including work, family, friends, community. His example of always taking the high road is rather inspiring. It comes from his relationship with his mother. She taught him that.”

The Russells hope to take Grace on her first camping trip soon. Dan has put together a family trip to the Boundary Waters every year since 1979. He also goes on frequent fishing trips with friends.

“All of the reasons the city points out young people should move here are reasons I came here in 1979,” Dan said. “It’s hard to imagine being somewhere else.”
 

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