The amazing overlapping boards of Duluth

John Ramos

On May 28, 2014, the Duluth Economic Development Authority (DEDA) heard a presentation from Brian Hanson, president of the Area Partnership for Economic Expansion (APEX). Formed in 2003, APEX is a private nonprofit organization that collects membership fees from businesses, foundations and various units of government in order to fulfill its mission as a “business development engine for northeast Minnesota and northwest Wisconsin.” Hanson was there to speak on Resolution 30, which granted $31,000 to APEX to develop a new “talent recruitment community database” called Northforce.
“Welcome, Brian,” said DEDA president Nancy Norr. “Welcome back.”
They were old acquaintances. In her professional life, Ms. Norr is the director of regional development for Minnesota Power. Mr. Hanson once worked as a business developer for Minnesota Power’s parent company, ALLETE. Hanson and Norr both currently serve on the board of Jobs for Minnesotans, a pro-mining group.
“President Norr and commissioners, thank you very much,” replied Hanson. “It’s good to be here. Many of you know that I had the opportunity to sit in the seat that Chris [Eng] is in [as the city’s Director of Business Development from 2010 to 2012], but maybe you didn’t know I also served for a short time as a [DEDA] commissioner. So it’s good to be here now in this third seat in this circle.”
Confident, self-assured, well-dressed—clearly, Mr. Hanson was in his element. As his work history suggests, Duluth provides a nice little ecosystem for a handful of well-connected professionals, who flit effortlessly from job to job within the ecosystem. Sometimes, as in Hanson’s case, they land at local nonprofit organizations.
The way Northforce works, Hanson explained, is that employers and jobseekers sign up on the website, listing their various needs and qualifications. Northforce personnel then seek to match employers’ needs with employees’ qualifications. In other words, it works like an employment agency. Northforce is free to all users.
Hanson told DEDA commissioners that Northforce’s strategy involved “hand-working with individuals” a lot more than other employment websites did.  And then there was Northforce’s logo. “We’re really proud of the appearance and the style of Northforce,” Hanson said. “Our logo, our color scheme…You know, when I get up in the morning and take a look out on that lake, I often see that color scheme, with that beautiful slate blue, and then that orange in the sky. That’s what the Northforce theme reminds me of, is what it’s like to wake up in this great community, for that great lake out there. So we have a very unique brand all our own.“
The Northforce website (northforce.org) develops the brand further by combining the Northland’s outdoorsy reputation with the message that there are also good jobs to be had here. One picture shows a kayaker admiring a sunrise over a lake, with the caption “Your New Morning Commute”—letting interested job seekers know that most Duluthians kayak to work.
By granting APEX $31,000, DEDA would be funding Phase 2 of the Northforce effort. Phase 1 involved gathering data. Now they were ready to start connecting people with jobs.
DEDA President Norr gazed down warmly upon Mr. Hanson. President Norr had a soft spot in her heart for APEX. Ten years earlier, she and other community-minded individuals had founded APEX. In 2013, she served on APEX’s executive committee. In fact, she was currently on APEX’s board of directors. So she knew, perhaps better than anyone, exactly what excellent uses Mr. Hanson had in mind for the $31,000.
Related to Resolution 30 was Resolution 29, which granted $33,334 to Northspan, another local nonprofit, to help APEX administer Northforce. Northspan will maintain the website and APEX will market it. Randy Lasky, president of Northspan, was on hand to speak to commissioners.
“We’re out here trying to innovate and trying to do something that we think has real value,” Lasky said. “The competition for skilled workers is going to continue to evolve with Baby Boomers retiring, all of that stuff, I think we all understand the dynamic out there. If we’re going to have competitive companies here, we need to be able to bring people into the system and get our businesses to [post] their jobs, so that we can give these guys something to look at and meet the need that’s on the other side.”
Lasky didn’t have to convince President Norr. Northspan’s website (northspan.org) already features a testimonial from Ms. Norr, speaking as the director of regional development for Minnesota Power. “Northspan has been the thread and needle sewing the economic development quilt out of a patchwork of partnering organizations,” she says, beaming happily out from her head shot.
Interestingly, Ms. Norr also serves on Northspan’s board of directors.
As I contemplate these cozy boardroom relationships, I cannot help but feel a pang of concern for Ms. Norr’s health and well-being. She must be exhausted serving on so many boards. To just take the current example: After she approved $64,334 worth of contracts for APEX and Northspan as a DEDA commissioner, she had to hurry across town to the APEX and Northspan boards and accept them. Public service certainly can keep a person busy.
Of course, she may be used to it by now. In 2012, when Ms. Norr was both a DEDA commissioner and a Northspan board member, she approved a $15,000 contract with Northspan to maintain a real estate database of city property.
I don’t mean to suggest that there’s any kind of cronyism going on here. If one person sits on many boards in Duluth, it attests only to her importance within the community. Ms. Norr doesn’t make a penny from her boardroom connections—certainly nothing like the waterfall of cheddar that deluges Brian Hanson and Randy Lasky. In 2012, the executive director of APEX made $165,000 and the president of Northspan made $104,000. People with salaries like that are obviously very good at what they do. By purchasing their services, Ms. Norr is only looking out for the city.

Spirit Mountain board  super friendly


For years, I have covered Spirit Mountain board meetings, first for my blog and now for this newspaper. I have never been welcomed; frequently, I have been obstructed. At one point in 2010, then-Board Chair Nancy Nelson refused to give me copies of documents discussed by the board, suggesting that I bring my own copy machine to meetings if I wanted copies. (I began to bring one.) In January of 2010, Spirit Mountain Executive Director Renee Mattson refused to let me see the alpine coaster contract after the board had approved it, because, she said, “You’re not gonna write anything positively or accurately, anyway.” Board Member Todd Torvinen once told me that the only reason Spirit Mountain didn’t sue me for slander was because I wanted the publicity. And so it went, month after month.
Which made it all the more disconcerting when I walked into the Spirit Mountain board meeting on July 17, 2014, and board members were all smiles. “Hello, John,” two or three of them said cheerfully. I almost turned tail and ran right there.
A few weeks earlier, Member Torvinen had told me that Spirit Mountain was entering a “new era,” with a new executive director. Renee Mattson had left the job in June; Brandy Ream had been hired in her place. Was bizarre friendliness a feature of the New Era? Or were they just messing with my head?
The meeting lasted about forty-five minutes. As usual, Finance Director John Thomas reported that Spirit Mountain had fallen short on revenue projections for the month.  Executive Director Ream gave a report on some broad ideas she had for returning Spirit Mountain to financial stability. Board Member Dave Kohlhaas said that Spirit Mountain’s goal needed to be to pay back what it owed the city, and to not ask the city for any more.
When I left, no fewer than four board members bid me a cheerful goodbye or thanked me for coming.  This was no world I knew.
28 days earlier
Perhaps people will understand my confusion better if I replay a conversation that took place 28 days earlier, on June 19, 2014, between Spirit Mountain board member Todd Torvinen and myself.
John Ramos: Todd. I’d like to attend that ad hoc committee….
Todd Torvinen: What’s that?
JR:…that’s gonna be reviewing the [water line] contract on Monday.
TT: Okay…
JR: I’d like to attend that meeting.
TT: It’s not a public meeting. Boy, I don’t know…
JR: I mean, the board already approved it. The board approved whatever you guys come up with.
TT: Well, I’ll see. We’ll see if we can figure out…
JR: I’d like to be notified of that. The board has already approved whatever you’re gonna come up with.
TT: Why don’t you check in with Marisa? Yeah.
JR: When is the meeting?
TT: I think we’re gonna try to have it at 4:30, either up here or somewhere in town.
JR: 4:30. Okay.
TT: We’re just gonna send something out. We can try to copy you.
JR: Oh, I’d like…for….certainly….[both talking at once] No, I don’t, and that’s another thing. I requested…
TT: It all depends, you know. If you’re gonna throw stuff out on your blog two hours later and try to disparage what we’re trying to…We’ve got a big…we’ve got a big thing to solve up here, and we need people that are gonna be part of—
JR: Well, regardless of what you‘re---
TT: --the solution. There are people—
JR: --regardless of what you think about what I do with it, it’s a public meeting, so I can come and do whatever I choose to do with the information.
TT: Well, maybe we won’t have it. Maybe we’ll just have two people meet and have a discussion.
JR: Well, and then it’ll go out of there and get approved? Because you need a full board to approve that sort of thing.
TT: Well, it’s…it’s already approved. It’s subject to…
JR: Right! It is already approved, which is exactly why I would like to sit in on the meeting.
TT: I’ll see if that’s possible.
JR: You’ll see if that’s pos—? It is possible. It’s totally possible. Just tell me where it is and I’ll show up.
TT: Okay, well, right now, it’s gonna probably be up here.
JR: Okay, probably be up here, at 4:30, right? And so I’ll show up and it’ll be somewhere else?
TT: Well, I would check with Marisa, and she will let you know.

This went on for a while longer, but I eventually prevailed. New Era or not, Torvinen’s evasiveness and stonewalling made me feel like nothing at all had changed at Spirit Mountain. But 28 days later, when I walked into the regular board meeting, everybody was all smiles.
It’s weird, right?

“John Ramos has observed and written on Duluth politics since 1998.”