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Paulucci donation helped with expansion and improvements at Bayfront Festival Park 20 years ago

Lois Paulucci donated $3 million to create Bayfront Festival Park in its current version.

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A 2000 view from the top of the Duluth News Tribune building shows a view of Bayfront Festival Park. (Derek Neas / 2000 file / News Tribune)
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DULUTH — About this time 20 years ago, a new, improved version of Bayfront Festival Park opened in Duluth, supported by philanthropist Lois Paulucci, who envisioned a family-friendly space on the waterfront.

This is an area where, in the late 1990s, ideas ranging from a strip mall to a snowmobile access point to a final resting place for World War II ship the USS Des Moines were floated.

Then, in September 1999, Paulucci planned to donate $2 million for expansion and improvements at the park — though ultimately she would give more and more.

A caveat: It must be a public space.

“I’m hoping Bayfront Festival Park is the beginning of a family center where our young people can find something wholesome and enjoyable to do together with family members and friends,” she said in a 2001 interview.

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Paulucci ended up giving Duluth $3 million to the project, one of few by the family that was tied to her name. She reportedly stopped by the site weekly and if she couldn’t make it, asked the mayor for updates on its progress.

Bayfront Blues Festival, which returns this weekend after a hiatus in 2020 because of the pandemic, has been a staple of the park since 1989.

The first year, about 4,000 people came through the gates despite it being a dark and stormy day and a space perfect for mud-making.

“They danced in the swampy grass in front of the stage and they jived on picnic tables,” the Duluth News Tribune reported at the time. “By mid-evening, nobody seemed to care if it was raining or not — least of all (headliner Luther Allison).”

Even then, the park was famous for showing off passing ships.

“You turn around and there would be an iron ore ship behind you,” Paul Metsa recalled in a 2018 story. “You could throw a baseball and hit it. It’s very surreal and very Duluth.”

The festival grew in days, popularity and attendance numbers.

And in 2000, months before the groundbreaking for improvements, Bayfront Blues Festival received a group of architects from BRW, a Twin Cities firm, who monitored the crowd’s flow through the space, sight lights and how trucks navigated and unloaded.

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The park opened with a concert by Creedence Clearwater Revisited. 2001 File / Mike Stenerson / News Tribune

The city christened Bayfront Festival Park in late July 2001 with a Creedence Clearwater Revisited concert, and an estimated 15,000 people stopped by to see it: the new Lois M. Paulucci Pavilion, an open-air stage that allows for ships pushing through the bay to sometimes be framed behind it and the “sloped bowl” of land in front of it.

Paved pathways were added, as well as hilly areas and a specified spot for vendors to form an arc along the back side of the park.

A few weeks later, Bayfront Blues Festival director Chris Mackey estimated that 50,000 people came through the gates for the three-day, 23-band weekend.

Since then, Bayfront Festival Park has hosted Bob Dylan, Trampled By Turtles, Wilco, Steve Miller Band, Superior Siren, Haley, Cloud Cult, Low, Willie Nelson, The Monkees and countless other acts.

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Lois Paulucci gave the city $3 million to create Bayfront Festival Park. She attended the ground-breaking in October 2020. 2000 File / Charles Curtis / News Tribune

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Who was Lois Paulucci?

Lois Paulucci was born and raised in Duluth and a graduate of Central High School. She was married to frozen food magnate-entrepreneur Jeno Paulucci, a Hibbing, Minnesota, native, for more than 60 years.

They died within days of each other in 2011.

The park and its warming shelter-picnic pavilion weren’t her only contributions to Duluth. The family was also behind Trepanier Hall in the YWCA, the Solvay Hospice House and more.

She was remembered in her obituary as being “soft-spoken, strong-willed and friendly.” Her passions: needlework, family, friends.

Gary Doty, who was Duluth’s mayor at the time of the Bayfront makeover, said she didn’t want recognition for her role in park improvements. It was tricky to convince her to allow her name to be affixed to the open-air stage, he said.

“(Bayfront was) just a piece of wetland,” Doty said in 2011. “Everything you see down there (now) is a result of their contribution.”

If you go

The Bayfront Blues Festival is this weekend in Duluth. For more information on acts, tickets and more, visit www.bayfrontblues.com.

  • Friday, Aug. 13: Acts include The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Alvin Youngblood Hart's Muscle Theory, Joanna Connor and more.
  • Saturday, Aug. 14: Acts include Tab Benoit, Tommy Castro & The Painkillers, Lil' Ed & The Blues Imperials, Duke Tumatoe & The Power Trio and more.
  • Sunday, Aug. 15: Acts include CJ Chenier & The Red Hot Louisiana Band, Danielle Nicole, Johnny Rawls and more.
Related Topics: HISTORYBAYFRONT FESTIVAL PARKBAYFRONT BLUES FESTIVALDULUTH
I am a 20-plus year employee of the Duluth News Tribune, first as a sports reporter, briefly as a copy editor and now as a features reporter with an emphasis on arts, entertainment and oddities. I enjoy trail running, paddle boarding, reading, yoga, cooking and things that are hilarious. I live in, and celebrate, West Duluth with my elementary school aged daughter, my longtime partner, and two pandemic pets. I can be reached at (218) 279-5536 or clawler@duluthnews.com
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