A leaking roof has prompted city officials to declare the upper floors of the Duluth Heights Community Center unfit for public use, but the ground floor of the building continues to serve as a popular gathering place for young hockey players and recreational skaters alike at this time of year.
Nevertheless, the long-term outlook for the center at 33 W. Mulberry St. doesn't appear bright, according to Erik Birkeland, property and facilities manager for the city of Duluth.
"This building is beyond its life cycle, and it was not adequately maintained over a 60-year period of time," he said.
"It's time to replace the building. That said, I think the city is still open to discussions around what kind of facility we may look at in this location," Birkeland said, noting that its central location off Arlington Avenue makes the park a natural choice for a community center.
Toward that end, he said the city aims to put together a "mini-master plan" this year.
"I've been working with an architect to look at different options for an affordable community-type building there that would serve that area, if that was the conclusion everybody came to, so to speak," Birkeland said.
However, Zak Radzak, rink director for the Duluth Heights Hockey Association, isn't ready to give up on the existing facility just yet and said he has been getting price quotes from companies for what it would take to repair the roof. Radzak believes city staff have overestimated what repairs would cost and suggested that demolition could easily prove to be the even more expensive option.
Radzak said he and other supporters of the Duluth Heights Community Center hope to put together a proposal and meet with city representatives some time in the next few weeks.
Radzak has found an advocate in 2nd District Duluth City Councilor Renee Van Nett, who represents Duluth Heights.
"I'm a big supporter of community centers, because growing up, everything was about community. That's where we got some of our needs met and we made friends and met other people. When you come from humble beginnings like that you rely on your community to survive," said Van Nett, recalling her Native American upbringing.
While Birkeland said he is willing to consider other ideas, he remains skeptical of plans to save the center.
"It's not just about the roof. There's a whole cascading series of elements in that building that need to be dealt with," he said. "We think it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to basically get that building set up for use going forward. And that's not a particularly good use of the money."
Birkeland cited a rule of thumb in property management circles that if a project would consume 60% of the cost of building new, the best course of action is to tear down and replace the old structure.
"From my perspective, the building's worn out. It's not worth investing in, and it needs to come down eventually. That said, it can operate out of the basement, and that probably can go forward indefinitely, unless something else starts to happen in that facility," he said, noting that there's no need to displace the neighborhood hockey association in the meantime.
However, Radzak pointed out that the community center previously served many other groups besides the hockey association before its upper floors were closed off.
Radzak said he's hoping, with the help of community support, "we can fix this community center and not just make it 'as is,' but make it better than it is, to turn it into that centralized hub that Duluth needs, so our kids have a place to play baseball, soccer and hockey. Make it into a place for after-school activities, rummage sales, weddings, birthday parties — because that's all the kind of stuff that used to go on there until 1 1/2 years ago when they shut it down."
Birkeland suggested the city would be well-served to conduct a level-headed analysis of its options in Duluth Heights.
Radzak noted that the center even contains a one-bedroom apartment that could be rented out to help cover operating costs. He warned that taking down the building would deal a painful blow to the city.
The city already has torn down a number of community facilities that fell into disrepair in recent years, including the Irving, Memorial Park and Merritt centers. But if the city doesn't find a way to save the Duluth Heights center, Radzak predicted there will be political fallout.
"If they demo that building, they're essentially demo'ing our community. They're getting rid of one more community center in the city of Duluth for the taxpayers, the people who live here and that raise their children here," Radzak said.
Those other expenditures cited involve tourism tax proceeds that are specifically earmarked to support that industry, but Van Nett remains confident the neighborhood and city still can work together to find a mutually acceptable way to provide the needed support to sustain a community center in Duluth Heights.