St. Louis County Historical Society leadership changing as director retires

18 July 2023

DULUTH The St. Louis County Historical Society is seeking a new executive director. Longtime leader JoAnne Coombe retired after 34 years serving the organization, said Ron Hein, director of the society’s board of governors.

In a statement written for a June 30 retirement party, the society credited Coombe for her leadership in shaping St. Louis County Depot exhibits including the Veterans Memorial Hall Gallery and the J.C. Ryan Forest History Room.

“Women’s history was a focus under JoAnne’s leadership,” according to the statement, which also cited Coombe’s dedication to highlighting the county’s Indigenous history as well as the contributions of working people and military veterans.

The open executive director position is now posted on the society’s website, with an application due date of July 28. “The main thing that we’re looking for is … a person who has proven managerial experience,” said Hein. “The other thing that we’re looking for is a person that has had a proven track record of grant writing.”

Coombe became director in 1991 and led the organization through both triumphs and turbulence, including management changes at the Depot and financial challenges that have recently created tension with the county, which provides a large portion of the organization’s funding.

In 2021, Coombe defended the organization’s financial management against criticism by county commissioners including Frank Jewell, who said, “We’re giving them way too much money, and we don’t even know what they use the money for because their budget is really opaque.”

At that point, commissioners unanimously approved a performance-improvement plan. County budget records show that, in total, funding for the historical society increased in each of the following years, going from $431,498 in 2021 to $496,998 in 2023.

Hein said that the organization’s relationship with the county is “moving in the right direction,” and categorically denied that Coombe’s departure was related to the financial tussles. Coombe did not respond, by press time, to interview requests for this article.

“She’s committed to the preservation of history,” said Hein, “and there may have been times when her enthusiasm and her not (being) willing to accept anything that was not in the best interest of the society and the exhibits caused some people to probably give her a bad reputation, which she certainly did not deserve.”

The organization is currently focused on “a significant move of artifacts” from storage in the Depot to a space in the Wells Fargo building, said Hein, as the Depot undergoes a major heating, ventilation and air conditioning overhaul requiring the use of that storage space.

To be clear, said Hein, “we fully support that HVAC system … which we need, there’s no question about it.”

The historical society is also developing “a state-of-the-art museum exhibit” on mining in Northeastern Minnesota, expanding significantly on the “County Built On Iron” exhibit currently on display in the Depot. Hein hopes the “destination-type” exhibit, with a total budget of approximately $650,000, will be complete by some point in 2024.


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