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County considers hosting international conference — in Duluth

The good news is that Carlton County has been asked to host a major international conference in 2016. The bad news is that there's nowhere to hold it.

The good news is that Carlton County has been asked to host a major international conference in 2016. The bad news is that there's nowhere to hold it.

In a request to the Carlton County Committee of the Whole on Tuesday, Laraine Mickelson of the Restorative Justice (RJ) program asked commissioners to consider contributing to a contingency fund that would enable it to host the annual convention of  Restorative Practices International (RPI) in Minnesota July 20-22, 2016. This would be the first time the conference has been hosted in the United States.

Mickelson said she was approached with the request by representatives of RPI, which is based in Australia.

"It would be quite an honor to host this event, which would draw in people from around the world, particularly Australia, New Zealand and Canada," said Mickelson, explaining that RPI is considered the founder of modern-day restorative justice practices.

Mickelson went on to say that the initial cost of planning the convention is expected to be some $9,000-$10,000 - of which RPI would pick up $3,000 and the county, as the host site, would be expected to pick up $6,000-$7,000 - in order to establish a contingency fund to cover down payments, reserve a convention site and hire a conference planner.

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"An international conference of this magnitude requires a planner because there is so much to be done," said Mickelson.

She went on to explain that the conference would require a location with lots of break-out rooms, a ballroom and enough guest rooms to lodge 300-400 people.

"Unfortunately, there isn't a location in Carlton County that can offer all those things," said Mickelson. "In fact, there isn't even a hotel in St. Louis County that has that capacity, so we're looking at using the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center (DECC)."

Mickelson said she has already been in touch with both a representative of the St. Louis County Visitors Bureau and a prospective conference planner with an eye toward hosting the conference if the county agrees to participate. The next step, she said, would be to develop a conference committee, likely comprised of RJ staff and volunteers from the county, others from the community, and possibly representatives of related agencies throughout the state.

"Minnesota is one of the leading states in the county in restorative justice," commented Mickelson. "This would undoubtedly bring in a lot of people from Canada as well, because that country is well-steeped in restorative justice philosophy."

She said one of the major roles of the committee would be to secure sponsors for the event, with sponsorship levels ranging from $1,000-$10,000.

"We would need to be diligent in finding $15,000-$20,000 in sponsors to help defray costs," said Mickelson. "The contingency fund has always come back to the host site, and the event has always made a profit in the past."

She said that any profit would be split proportionately between the host site and RPI, adding that if for some reason the event should fall short on covering its costs, that deficit would likewise fall on RPI and the county to make up. She said last year’s conference in New Zealand made a profit of $18,000.

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Mickelson agreed that while the date of the conference might seem like a long time off, planning would have to begin as soon as possible.

"Planning for this needs to start yesterday," she said. "There's a lot to do."

To that end, she requested that the county consider signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with RPI, which would create a contract between the two to host the 2016 conference.  

"I think this presents a really unique opportunity to showcase Carlton County and what we do here," said Commissioner Tom Proulx, who has already agreed to be part of the committee. He expressed regret that the conference couldn't be held here in Carlton County but proposed that certain events be planned here during the conference, such as a golf tournament at Black Bear Casino Resort and possibly a day at Jay Cooke State Park.

Carlton County Economic Development Director Connie Christenson said she believes that if the county agrees to enter into an agreement with RPI as a host of the conference, that would help leverage sponsorships to help with the costs of putting on the event.

Commissioner Marv Bodie said he was concerned about how much county staff time would be required to plan and host the event. Mickelson said she and possibly three to four other staff members would be involved in the preliminary planning stages, with more needed as the event draws nearer.

Still, Bodie had his reservations.

"I'm not sure this will benefit us at all," he said. "Why not let St. Louis County or the Department of Corrections take the lead? We've had to hire extra Restorative Justice people to handle the load we have here already. Why would we commit them to more work?"

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"For them to ask us and our program to be a part of this is a pretty big deal," responded Mickelson. "It would help us build on the collective work we do here and benefit not only us but the region."

Though Mickelson offered to work with whatever the Board felt was a fair amount of staff time to devote to the event, Bodie said the fact it was being held in Duluth was the real sticking point for him.

Duane Brownie, Carlton County veterans service officer, said, "As a taxpayer, it would be hard to know your dollars are supporting an event in Duluth."

Commissioner Gary Peterson asked, "What if we lose money on it?"

Mickelson reiterated that that has never happened in the lengthy history of the conference and added, "It would be a great benefit to our county. Bringing in the founding fathers of modern-day restorative justice can only strengthen our program and make it better for our community."

Commissioner Dick Brenner asked if RPI was willing to send anyone over to help with planning the event, but Mickelson said they were unable to do so, though they would participate in whatever other ways they can.

"I think the concept is fine," responded Brenner, "but the organizational piece of it is what I'm having a hard time with."

County Planner Dennis Genereau suggested the county commit the planning dollars to the event but not the staff time, but Mickelson said since she was the one who was approached about the proposal she feels that she needs to continue to be involved if the event moves forward.

Asked what the timeline was for making a decision, Mickelson said RPI would like a decision in time to announce it at its annual conference in March in Tasmania, suggesting a final decision be made possibly at the Board's final meeting in February.

"This may be an opportunity we'll never have again," urge Proulx.

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