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Event planning business expands with downtown Duluth presence

Mariah McKechnie shows off the vault in the new downtown storefront for her Northland Special Events business. The vault, which came from the 1939 New York World's Fair, has now been turned into a conference area for event coordinators and clients to meet. (Photo by Tom Olsen)1 / 2
Duluth's Greysolon Ballroom is all set for a wedding planned by Northland Special Events. NSE owner Mariah McKechnie recently opened a downtown Duluth storefront for her business. (Steve Diamond Elements photo)2 / 2

When Mariah McKechnie was looking at potential locations for her wedding and event planning business, there was one feature of a space in downtown Duluth's Torrey Building that she couldn't overlook: a bank vault.

She was even more intrigued when she did some research and found out that the vault came from the 1939 New York World's Fair.

Now the antique vault is her conference area, where she plans to meet with brides to discuss wedding plans.

"When I walked into this space, I came around the corner and saw that vault and I said, 'I love it,'" McKechnie said. "We want people to say, 'I'm going down to The Vault.' And we'll weave that in with our marketing and advertising: 'Your wedding is safe with us.'"

McKechnie's Northland Special Events has been in business since 2010, but it has now grown to the point where a physical location is needed to meet with clients, she said. The business provides full-service wedding and corporate event planning, but also services such as floral arrangements.

McKechnie splits her time between Duluth and the Twin Cities. Although most of the weddings and events she organizes take place in Duluth and the North Shore area, she estimates that about half of her business comes from Twin Cities residents.

"Duluth is sort of an epicenter in the state for weddings," she said. "It's a real destination wedding market, and we've found a niche here."

Northland Special Events has approximately eight event coordinators in Duluth and two in the Twin Cities, allowing Twin Cities couples to meet with staff close to home and in Duluth.

The new shop, located just inside the Superior Street entrance to the Torrey Building, 314 W. Superior Street, will be the business' first physical location.

McKechnie has spent the past several years operating the business out of her home and from the back of Party America, a sister business that her family has owned for 18 years.

The business grew from 12 events in its first year to 48 the next. With more than 60 planned for this year, McKechnie said she had to scramble to find a location before the busy summer season.

"I think they basically kicked me out of Party America," she joked. "We were just out of space."

Sandy (Ferguson) Liles of Duluth was one of McKechnie's many customers last year. Liles planned her September 2012 wedding through NSE after hearing about the business from a coworker. She said she hasn't regretted the decision.

"We have said working with NSE was one of the best decisions we made when planning our wedding," said Liles, who married WDIO-TV meteorologist Justin Liles.

"They made the process of planning a wedding a lot of fun and were wonderful at presenting ideas and helping bring our thoughts and ideas to life. We really felt as if this were their "big day" too with all the thought and care they put into every detail."

With the Torrey Building location, McKechnie says she has an ideal location to better display all her product choices and ideas.

Perhaps even more importantly, she'll be filling a downtown storefront that has been vacant for years.

"It's fun to be part of the renewal of downtown," said her mother Sharon McKechnie, who primarily runs Party America, but also helps with Northland Special Events. "It's a dream come true to be able to work beside by daughter."

The store, which had its grand opening on Wednesday, will initially be open to clients by appointment only, but McKechnie plans to open it to drop-in business soon.

McKechnie and her staff have put significant work into transforming the office space into a showroom. A ramp was installed into the vault, preventing it from closing (no one knows how to reopen it if does), white walls were repainted with lively colors, and furniture was moved in.

While the location still has an office setup, rather than a traditional retail open space, McKechnie plans to use the layout to divide the area for different products and services. There will be spots to display floral selections, tableware and linens. A play area for children will also be situated next to the vault/conference room.

"A lot of elbow grease has gone into this," McKechnie said. "And whenever possible, we've used repurposed items. There's very little here that's actually new. It's been a labor of love and a chance for us to really show our creativity. If we're going to tell our clients that we do creative weddings, we might as well show our creativity here."