A conversation with Linda Jurek of Visit Cook County and the Cook County ChamberJun 01, 2022 08:45AM ● By Laura Durenberger
By Rae Poynter - Boreal Community Media Exclusive - June 1, 2022
Warmer weather has finally arrived to the northland and Cook County is gearing up for its summer season. Summer is a busy time of year for many of the county’s businesses and organizations, including Visit Cook County and the Cook County Chamber of Commerce. Linda Jurek is the Executive Director of both the Chamber and Visit Cook County, and this will be the first summer season with both organizations under the same director. Boreal sat down with Jurek to learn more about what is in store for both the Chamber and Visit Cook County this summer.
Changes for the Cook County Chamber
The Cook County Chamber of Commerce was formed in 2013 to be the voice of local businesses and to address issues affecting the local economy. The Chamber’s primary focus was on policy, which included initiatives such as hiring a lobbyist in St. Paul to help address the needs of our local businesses. The Chamber realized many of its goals in its first years; as former Executive Director Jim Boyd wrote in an October 2021 press release, “We truly helped make Cook County a better place in which to live, work and raise a family.”
Nearly a decade onward, many of the founding Chamber members had moved on; not only that, but Jim Boyd announced in July of 2021 that he wanted to move from full-time to part-time work. It was becoming apparent that the Chamber would need to undergo changes to feasibly continue into the future. One of these changes was the question of financial sustainability; Linda Jurek said that a sustainable chamber should have a balance between dues and non-dues revenue, a balance that should sit somewhere between 40 and 50%. With some Cook County Chamber members paying higher dues than one would expect in a typical chamber–and with few events or services offered by traditional chambers–this was something that would need to be addressed as well.
Among all these factors, a new solution emerged: by combining some resources and staffing with Visit Cook County (VCC), the Chamber could start to offer more of those services. With her background working for the Duluth Chamber as well as working closely with local businesses through VCC, Linda Jurek was up for the task.
“I was a member of the executive committee and the idea had been floated around,” Jurek said. “So we started working toward that direction, knowing that we still wanted to retain a lobbyist working for us in St. Paul.”
The idea of a single director model for a destination marketing organization (DMO) and a chamber of commerce is not unique: other Minnesota communities such as Lake County, St. Cloud, and Fairbault have a joint chamber and DMO. And while the changes have sometimes been described as a merge, Visit Cook County and the Cook County Chamber are not truly merged in that they retain separate finances and separate boards of directors.
“The place that they do cross over now is in more thoughtful and efficient utilization of time, energy, efforts, and staff,” Jurek said.
The transition to a single-director model took place in January, with Jim Boyd staying on part-time as Director of Policy and Advocacy. Jurek said that the last several months have been both exciting and challenging: serving as director of both organizations is a huge role, but one that is bringing more local opportunities for Chamber members, including events, networking, and advocacy.
“We’re having our first Chamber Connect on June 1, which is more of the typical social networking that chambers typically offer,” Jurek said. “We’re hoping to have those six times a year and to build in sponsorships and venue sponsors for those events. We’re also going to do ribbon cuttings and plan to be doing more to show what our chamber can do here locally in addition to what we’re doing in St. Paul.”
Visit Cook County looking ahead to another busy summer
In addition to her work with the Chamber, Linda Jurek continues her work as Director for Visit Cook County, which, like the Chamber, is also growing: Jurek said they are hiring an administrative assistant and part-time bookkeeper.
A nonprofit funded by the local lodging tax, Visit Cook County is comprised of the Gunflint Trail Association, Lutsen-Tofte-Schroeder Tourism Association, and the Grand Marais Area Tourism Association, each with a separate board of directors. Like other DMOs, VCC both promotes and helps manage tourism in the county. Linda Jurek became VCC’s director in 2013, and although she didn’t have previous DMO experience, her backgrounds in entrepreneurship and the Duluth Chamber made the transition was an easy one.
“My favorite thing about working for here and in this area is exemplifying thoughtful leadership–I feel that’s really important,” Jurek said. “I have a young heart for an older person and I’m one of those people who has to get it done. I love being a thoughtful leader and bringing the balance of having grown up here but also being gone for 30 years, and bringing back new and different ideas.”
Jurek’s vision and drive helped VCC navigate the unthinkable when the Covid-19 pandemic sent the world into lockdown in March of 2020. Although the situation initially looked dire for a county so heavily reliant on tourism, as travel restrictions eased it soon became apparent that the pandemic wasn’t about to decimate tourism to the North Shore…in fact, the reality was quite the contrary.
“Kjersti Vick, our Director of PR and Marketing, was really watching the trends of tourism, and we both knew early on that we would become a sought-after destination,” Jurek said. “People couldn’t fly and they were looking to drive to destinations that were on their bucket list, and we are on a lot of people’s bucket lists.”
These trends helped Cook County’s popularity soar, but this led to new challenges as well. In addition to the health concerns of the pandemic, local businesses experienced staffing shortages just as demand for the North Shore was spiking. To navigate these challenges, VCC focused on internal, county-based conversations and keeping both community members and visitors safe. Some of these initiatives included asking guests to be patient while visiting local businesses, and reminding guests to socially distance with the One Moose Apart campaign. (Which, incidentally, is now part of the Smithsonian’s pandemic-related installation.)
“We worked hard all the way through and created best practices and kept our community safe, which is another reflection of what a DMO does,” Jurek said.
While the pandemic was not solely responsible for the tensions between high tourism demand and low workforce supply, it certainly exacerbated the existing challenges that places like Cook County are experiencing. Several factors come into play in creating this tension, from a higher cost of living than other rural areas to an affordable housing crisis to the seasonality of many tourism-related jobs. Perhaps the most acute problem affecting staffing during the pandemic was the halting of the J-1 Visa Program, meaning the seasonal employees many businesses rely on could no longer come to Cook County to work.
“Before the pandemic, our hospitality businesses were doing okay finding workers,” Jurek said. “But when the pandemic hit and tourism didn’t slow down, especially last summer our restaurants couldn’t find employees. Even those restaurants that wanted to be open every day couldn’t stay open because they didn’t have the staffing and the employees they had needed days off.”
Jurek said that VCC received questions and complaints from guests who couldn’t find places to eat; meanwhile, hospitality workers were experiencing exhaustion and burnout. Although there may be a correction in the volume of tourism back to pre-pandemic levels at some point, it’s hard to predict exactly when and to what extent that might happen. Jurek said they still expect to see workforce problems and increased traffic this summer, meaning that VCC will continue working to inform and educate guests about what to expect.
But despite the unique challenges of the past two summers, Jurek said that VCC is doing well, and that they continue to look for ways to help build out a sustainable economy in Cook County.
“Sustainable is an intentional word, meaning it’s sustainable in trying to create a 12-month economic flatline,” Jurek said. “Visit Cook County focuses on what we typically call ‘shoulder seasons,’ or November-December and April-May. We often hear people say that we’re too busy and can’t handle any more people, but that’s not true–it is true that we are full in July and August and for many weekends over the year, but there are seasons where we aren’t maxed out.”
Increasing the number of visitors during the off season (and managing expectations during the peak season) leads to more jobs that are year-round, rather than seasonal, creating more stability for workers in the hospitality industry who may otherwise have to rely on piecing multiple jobs together throughout the year.
Another way that VCC is looking inward at supporting the community is a focus on environmental sustainability. “We want to make sure that people understand what our expectations are as a community for taking care of our area,” Jurek said. “Our earth, or lakes, our trees, picking up garbage–we want people to understand all of it. So both economic and environmental sustainability are really front of mind and important for Visit Cook County.”