Gloria Bouschor came from her home on the other side of town, some 125 blocks east, to Gary-New Duluth one morning in August.
She was there with other Daughters of the American Revolution members to pull grass from among wild-looking plants growing in twin pollinator habitats now part of the ever-expanding Gary-New Duluth Recreation Area.
Bees spreading goodwill, Bouschor and her service-minded friends were attracted to the goings-on in the neighborhood located along Commonwealth Avenue in West Duluth.
“The development here is absolutely wonderful and very helpful to this part of town,” Bouschor said. “This is right near Stowe Elementary School. Everybody is interested in nature and profits by being able to get outside. This is a positive thing for any neighborhood.”
Since coming together to restore and enhance the Gary-New Duluth Veterans Memorial earlier this decade, the neighborhood’s nonprofit GND Development Alliance has proceeded to undertake one project after another, with no end in sight. Earlier this year, it unveiled the K-9 Haas Memorial Dog Park named for the Duluth police dog killed in the line of duty. As of 2019, the development alliance has accumulated nearly $3 million worth of projects — estimated in cash, and donated time, services, supplies and materials.
“Nobody else is doing anything like this,” said Mark Boben, chair of a development alliance board made up of classmates and other people with deep connections to the neighborhood and one another. “We’re all in this together and we’re all emotionally and passionately involved. It means a lot to us.”
The results are already a vision come to life. It’s a shared and versatile green space made for adults and children alike, featuring sports courts and gardens in the heart of the neighborhood. One recent geocaching event saw an estimated 100 people of all ages scrounging for treasures strategically placed in the adjacent 19 acres of wooded trails.
Four times a year now, community concerts encompass a central pavilion as if it were the tip of a sparkler vibrant residents danced around.
“This area has always been neglected and now we have an opportunity to do something really special here,” Boben said. “It is being transformed.”
Boben is retired from overseeing major projects in the oil and gas industry. He has won over residents with meticulous planning and ambition to restore a sense of place to the neighborhood.
“I’ve always believed that if somebody wants to dance, you dance,” Stowe Principal Nathan Glockle said. “You could see Mark was genuine.”
Boben and his wife, Linda, live on the east side, near grandkids, but his actions unfold in Gary-New Duluth. He grew up there, and recalls the days when steel and cement plants ruled that part of town, employing nearly 5,000 people. Gary-New Duluth was a place where people could buy new cars from both Mercury and Hudson dealerships. Banks and hardware stores mixed with dress shops and shoe stores. The place bustled. But the loss of major industries devastated the neighborhoods. Populations dwindled and facilities crumbled.
Before the current revival, a worn-out baseball field sat where there are now soccer fields. Makeshift paddlers could kayak in storm waters which pooled on the fields in that part of town. Now, the soccer fields drain dry on the same day of a downpour as new drainage and turf runs throughout the vast recreation space.
A renovated and rebranded GND REC building is now used for community meetings and YMCA programming, and is rented out for things such as wedding receptions and reunions. It was once a neglected shelter dubbed “the shack.”
Its renovation followed the unveiling of the new Veterans Memorial in 2015, and is a microcosm of how projects have come together within the whole area. For materials, volunteers received school district OK to pull truck and trailer loads of stuff from Morgan Park, and another school, prior to its demolition.
“It was a treasure trove," Boben said. "We’ve constantly rubbed two pennies together to make a nickel."
For GND REC, the development alliance repurposed or had donated tables, chairs, lumber, granite countertops, mirrors, wood cabinets, windows, bathroom utilities and much more — thousands of dollars worth of stuff and much of it, including heating and air-conditioning, installed by union tradespeople who donated the labor.
“There’s a rich history of labor in the Gary-New Duluth and Morgan Park areas,” Craig Olson, president of the Duluth Building Trades, said. “A lot of members live out there, so we like to give back to the communities and share our skills for organizations like the GND Development Alliance.”
Boben recently joined the News Tribune inside GND REC along with Fran Morris, another development alliance board member. They spoke under a banner filled with businesses and groups which have donated dollars, time or materials to the cause. The banner is growing so condensed with each new addition that were it converted to film credits the list would scroll on for a while and include things such as:
Walsh Building Products, on Grand Avenue, donated eight windows at $900 each
Dinehery Fence and Ironworks of Lincoln Park, donated and installed the security bars for the windows …
“This truly is a community effort from the Duluth-Superior area,” Boben said. “We’ve got people from Carlton, Sawyer and certainly Superior that have donated to this.”
One contributor, Del Zotto Products of Wrenshall, came to help after learning of a need for a storage shed. The alliance had planned to frame one up using lumber. Instead, Del Zotto said leave it to them, fabricating the walls of a concrete storage shed and using a crane to place it on slab and site. All free of charge. The neighborhood Duluth firefighters installed the trusses to the same building. Also volunteered.
“There’s just story after story like that,” Boben said. “It’s wonderful. It’s humbling how good people are sometimes."
The recreation area received $500,000 seed money from the city of Duluth in the form of St. Louis River corridor tourism tax dollars. But the funding materialized only after the neighborhood matched that lofty figure. With the big help of $100,000 donations from both Canadian National Railway and Vintage Acres, the neighborhood’s 300-site manufactured home community, “We got the match done in six months,” said Boben, who is typically both on the phone and raising money like he’s running a congressional campaign.
Morris would not let the conversation slip away without talking about another critical element to the success of the recreation area.
“One thing that makes us unique is the connection we have with the school,” she said. “Gary-New Duluth is in lockstep with Stowe Elementary School.”
Offering pre-K through fifth grade, Stowe had struggled in recent years, the principal said, losing students to nearby options. Competing with charter schools, Proctor’s Bay View Elementary School and Wrenshall left Stowe surrendering potential students from the neighborhood.
That does not seem to be the case any longer, Glockle said last week as he prepared for the start of the school year.
“People are coming back,” Glockle said. "And that’s what we want. We want to have folks in Duluth love and appreciate their hometown schools."
He couldn’t share enrollment figures yet, but he confessed to writing a proposal for another full-time teacher — the first time he’s had to do that in his three years at the school.
“We’re at the point we could use another teacher,” he said.
Glockle described the bond between the recreation area and the school, which fosters an environmental education that encourages children getting dirt under their fingernails. Nature clubs build forts and use food coloring to mark animal tracks at the rec area. Learning groups around the pollinator and community gardens are being woven into the curriculum.
“I believe that if you have a quality program, you don’t have to recruit,” Glockle said. “People are going to come. It’s the people that are here, talking to neighbors and friends about what's happening. That’s what is increasing our enrollment.”
Next up for the recreation area: maybe a disc golf course. But first, a secondary pavilion is already in the works, along with some resurfaced parking areas and a new skate park. The footings and walls for the skate park will be poured this fall. Then it’s back to fundraising in order to build the concrete apparatuses that make the skate park fun.
"Everything we've done is paid for," Morris said. "We don't owe anybody a dime."
To that end, Morris lifted a freezer door to reveal a freezer full of homemade strudel and petica. The pastries will be sold at a bake sale as part of Saturday’s Alps to the Adriatic Festival — a 1-5 p.m. celebration of the eastern European ancestry of many of the neighborhood residents. There will be music and bands, fair food, games, bouncy houses, and even therapy donkeys.
The event is in its third year, growing along with the revitalized Gary-New Duluth Recreation Area.
“This is part of bringing back the sights and sounds of this part of Duluth,” Boben said. “This year, it’s going to be awesome.”