Music, mud and millions in frozen food money helped transform abandoned Duluth waterfront into a stunning park now packed with blockbuster summer events and community celebrations.
Duluth Bayfront Festival Park plans were launched 20 years ago when city officials won a $2 million pledge from Lois Paulucci, the wife of Chun King Foods founder Jeno Paulucci, to improve a former industrial pier between West Sixth and Seventh avenues. The goal was to build a community gathering place, open and accessible to everyone.
No boots required.
The Bayfront Blues Festival had drawn music fans to the flat, perpetually flooded chunk of harbor fill for more than a decade when city officials launched ambitious renovation plans in 1999.
Festival founder Chris Mackey said the location always provided visitors with dramatic harbor views and convenient connections to Canal Park restaurants and hotels. But the spot was also plagued with natural and manmade problems.
“It was past its comfortable use,” Mackey said. “If the summer had been dry, it would be a dust bowl down there. If the summer was wet, it was a mud hole down there. The ground itself was practically concrete under what little grass there was.”
A semi-permanent, timber-framed stage featured large steel tubes that supported a yellow tent awning. It provided the venue with a funky but unfunctional centerpiece.
“To be honest,” he said, “If you got rain with a little breeze, you’d have a band using about eight square feet of the stage to try and find the best place to stay dry.”
The flat grounds featured poor sight lines, no vendor utilities, no permanent shelter or restroom area. It was basically a vacant lot.
The 11-acre site in the shadows of the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (DECC) had long been identified as an excellent park space.
According to Kathryn A. Martin Library records, Marshall-Wells Company heirs Julia and Caroline Marshall, working through the Duluth Improvement Association, donated money to purchase the property but nothing was done to improve it.
The Nancy Nelson and Tony Dierckins book “Duluth’s Historic Parks” notes the vacant property started seeing public use in the 1980s as an occasional concert venue. The first blues festival was held on the grounds in 1988.
“It was just used as it was sitting there. Nothing was ever done to it,” said Gary Doty, who served as Duluth mayor from 1992 to 2004. “It was gravel and a few spots of grass here and there.”
Something had to be done.
“The setting itself was beautiful,” he said. “A concert overlooking Lake Superior and the Aerial Lift Bridge, how can you beat that?”
Doty, who grew up with the Paulucci children, approached Jeno Paulucci to request financing for a large recreation center. “He came back and said Lois felt the park was being underutilized and could do better. So she was more interested in that.”
After an initial $2 million pledge, Lois Paulucci kicked in another $1.5 million to finish the job.
“I was thrilled that she saw that as something she wanted to be involved in and offered the financial resources to be able to do it in a classy way,” Doty said. “It was a blessing to the community.”
“Lois loved Duluth, I’m not surprised she wanted to do that down there.”
DSGW Architects principal Randy Wagner, who designed the pavilion, said the city had discussed multiple property plans for years. Ideas ranged from undeveloped natural space to a Canal Park retail and commercial extension.
“It was a major undertaking. It was very controversial,” Wagner said. “Everybody certainly felt that it was a very valuable place in our city to do something special. But everybody had different ideas how it should play out.”
Ultimately, the city decided to combine park space with amenities like a festival grounds. The Lois Paulucci donation included $700,000 to fund stage construction.
“She left it to the city to come up with something they thought best,” Wagner said.
A landscape design firm built a slope into the property for quality amphitheater sightlines. Trees and other plantings created shade and sound proofing. Infrasture like utilities and walkways were added for vendors and other services.
Longtime DECC Director Dan Russell, who retired in 2017, said debate ensued on stage location and noise direction: “Do you tick off downtown or do you tick off Park Point?” he said.
Officials concluded the site best fit a stage facing downtown with the harbor in the background.
“At the end of the day, it was the right decision,” Russell said. “What makes that one of the most unique parks in America is that you sit there while you are enjoying a concert or Trampled by Turtles or the Fourth of July, you’re looking out at the lake and the lift bridge and the harbor. It can’t be replicated.”
Wagner built the pavilion to be flexible yet big enough to host national touring groups. He gave the stage an industrial look to celebrate Duluth history and echo the nearby Aerial Lift Bridge.
While project naysayers initially criticized the design, the pavilion has become a Duluth icon.
“I’m so proud of the place,” Wagner said. “I consider it one of the best pieces of work I’ve done in my whole career,”
According to the Duluth history website Zenithcity.com, a crowd of 12,000 people celebrated the park grand opening on July 26, 2001. Jeno and Lois Paulucci were on hand as officials named the stage “The Lois M. Paulucci Music Pavilion.”
Since then the park has provided entertainment, recreational opportunities and employment to hundreds of thousands of people from Duluth and across the upper midwest.
After underutilization issues, DECC officials took over Bayfront Festival Park management in 2012. The facility has a record 46 summer events planned in 2019 with an expected attendance of more than 200,000 people.
Park events bring jobs and regional recognition to Duluth every year.
“It’s used for local festivals. That’s huge,” Doty said. “But also, it’s something that attracts bigger (acts). It’s a venue that brings in people from all over the country. That provides dollars into the economy of Duluth.”
The Bentleyville Tour of Lights, erected each fall for the holidays, drew more than 300,000 visitors to Duluth last year, generating revenue for hotels, restaurants and other local services.
Russell said Bayfront Festival Park helps make the city a unique tourist draw.
“It’s a combination of all sorts of things. The Lakewalk, the lake, and Bayfront Park is one of those things. It’s our summer playground,” Russell said. “I think it’s a source of pride for the community. It makes us different.”
Giant ore boats cruise behind the stage, the lift bridge horn, even fog and sudden weather changes make the place special.
“If Bayfront Park was up over the hill it would be just another casino amphitheater.” he said.
Both Doty and Russell remember a 2012 Bayfront performance from comedian, actor and musician Steve Martin, touring with his Steep Canyon Rangers bluegrass band.
Martin delayed the show when a 1,000-foot ore boat passed through the ship canal.
“He just stood there for four or five minutes and watched. He just could not believe it,” Russell said. “I never get sick of seeing that. When you see a ship go through the lift bridge, it’s always a thrill. (Martin) just sat there and stared, looked over and said, ‘Wow.’”
Here are 5 can’t-miss summer shows at Bayfront
Music, food, beer, blues and tall ships
Bayfront Festival Park will host a record number of 46 events through September this year. Here are five “can’t miss” happenings with guaranteed lake breezes and harbor views.
Trampled by Turtles
“For me, I could listen to them all day,” says CBS3 TV Producer Ramona Marozas. “The July date screams beautiful weather, and if this show is anything like last year, it will be packed. The sun in my face and running into friends in hammocks. This show is going to be bomb.” Former Duluth Homegrown Director and KUWS Music Director Walt Dizzo agrees: “You can’t go wrong with the lineup,” he says. “I’m excited to see Zoo Animal back in action. Holly Hansen’s new material has been a much needed addition to my playlist.” etix.com
Taste of Duluth
“This new-ish festival has a little bit of everything: music, food, crafts, and vendors — with an emphasis on local,” says KUMD Music Director Christine Dean. “For those still missing the long-running Duluth International Folk Festival, organizers are hinting that they’ll be bringing back a bit of the feel of that cherished event.” tasteofduluth.com
Bayfront Reggae and World Music Festival
“No other festival matches this one’s positive, “one love” vibes and international flavor,” says Dean. “It attracts the most diverse crowd of any Bayfront regular summer event, including many locals who go year after year and make it an all-day event, setting up tents for shade along the perimeter.” Says Marozas: “Reggae jams on a warm summer day with a great crowd, international performers and a beautiful view of the lake — ummmm — yes please, no question!” bayfrontworldmusic.com
Honor the Earth Festival
I’m really excited by the lineup,” says Dizzo. “Keith Secola is a legend. I’m also a huge fan of both Maria Isa (who has been an incredible activist and a dynamite performer) and Chastity Brown. It’s just a matter of time until the rest of the world knows about her.” Says Dean: “A chance to celebrate and support our water resources and enjoy music from a strong lineup.” universe.com
Art in Bayfront Park
“I feel like this is the perfect event for family and friends to attend,” says Marozas. “What I noticed is artists are very appreciative this exists. It’s an opportunity to highlight talented Northlanders, and an opportunity to support their work.” artinbayfrontpark.com
Making Bayfront “mom approved” takes small army
Tight scheduling, a small army of workers and portable toilets by the truckload are all needed to make a northland party at Bayfront Festival Park run smoothly.
The DECC manages more than 40 events each summer at Bayfront Festival Park which attract more than 200,000 people — most of them visitors — to the city of Duluth. It’s not a small task to organize, staff and manage everything from blockbusters like the Tall Ships Festival to local gatherings like the Lake Superior Harvest Fest.
DECC Venue Operations and Bayfront Festival Park Director Jeff Stark said approximately 250 permanent staff and subcontractors are involved in each event, from setting up the first T-shirt tent to emptying the last recycling bin.
“Typically we’re working with almost a dozen different vendors to get the site prepped and ready to roll,” Stark said. “There’s some non-glamorous things that you have to have before you have an event.”
When the DECC took over Bayfront management in 2012, the park had 12 events on its calendar. Bookings have gone up every year, with a record 46 scheduled between the 2019 Grandma’s Marathon and a mid-September Duluth Oktoberfest.
Bookings are cut-off in September to allow for Bentleyville set-up.
Promoters rent Bayfront Festival Park for $1,200 a day. Stage use pushes costs as high as $1,700. Then renters must arrange for tents, fences, food and beverage vendors, security and ticketing. If an act hits the stage, the event needs sound engineers, lighting technicians and more security. Those costs can reach $20,000.
Police, firefighting and emergency medical support is also needed, and event organizers must follow a garbage and recycling plan.
Serving beer takes as much teamwork as winning a football game. Suppliers truck in kegs. Bar-backs deliver them to rented tents. Sellers provide security, pourers, cashiers and accountants.
“That’s a huge operation in and of itself,” Stark said. “Then you do that times 10 to 15 food vendors.”
Stark said the most important — and decidedly non-glamorous — event task is toilets. The 2018 Trampled by Turtles concert, which drew more than 10,000 people to Bayfront, used 142 port-a-potties — lines never took more than two minutes.”
“I always tell people I plan on my mom coming to every event,” Stark said. “The bathrooms have to be clean. You have to have enough toilet paper, hand soap, that kind of stuff, and then keep on top of it. So if your mom shows up, she’s not mad at you.”