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NEIGHBORHOODS: With the help of donations and volunteers, group revamps Gary-New Duluth rec center

Mark Boben and Fran Morris, members of the Gary New Duluth Development Alliance, stand inside the Gary New Duluth Rec Center. The GNDDA has been instrumental in getting the recreation area near Stowe Elementary School developed into an area for kids to play and hang out. (David Ballard Photography)1 / 6
Gary Recreation Center staff member Andrew Lundberg watches over a group of kids as they play GaGa Ball in the new pit at the Gary New Duluth Recreation Center. (David Ballard Photography)2 / 6
Gary New Duluth Recreation Center staff member Sara Eder laughs as she watches Jasmine Martin form circles with her fingers. (David Ballard Photography)3 / 6
Kobe Roner and Jacob Lester play with Legos at the Gary New Duluth Recreation Center. (David Ballard Photography)4 / 6
Amira Berhane chases Gary New Duluth Recreation Center staff member Andrew Lundberg in a field at the Gary New Duluth Recreation Center. (David Ballard Photography)5 / 6
Mark Boben talks with Gary New Duluth Recreation Center staff member Sara Eder inside the recreation center. (David Ballard Photography)6 / 6

Over the past decade or so, the Duluth recreation-center landscape has noticeably changed. In places like Irving Park and Memorial Park, once-bustling community centers have been razed, leaving people in the area without buildings in which to gather. In other places, budgets have been cut, and upkeep has lagged. Much of this stemmed from the economic realities after the Great Recession of 2008, and its effects are still being felt throughout the community.

In Gary-New Duluth, though, there's been a concerted effort in recent years by that community to take matters into their own hands and make their recreation center better and better all the time. It's been a campaign that has raised a great deal of money, and it's attracted laborers of all kinds who have donated time and materials to revitalize the rec center. The Gary New Duluth Development Alliance is the organization spearheading the project, and they've already made great strides, building new soccer fields and sport courts, a performance pavilion, a dog park and more. The near future will bring the construction of a state-of-the-art skateboard park. It's been a huge undertaking, but it's been done with love and care by people who want to see their community provided with opportunities for enrichment.

A sign that hangs in the Gary New Duluth Recreation Center. (David Ballard Photography)Fran Morris is a board member with the GNDDA. “I grew up in Gary-New Duluth,” she said. “I went to Stowe school. Upon retirement, I knew I wanted to give back to the community.” She went to an early meeting of the nascent GNDDA about four years back, and she was immediately inspired to sign on.

“I've been involved with all the fundraising — we've had two major raffle fundraisers where we brought in $30,000 for one of them and $15,000 for the other one,” Morris said. “I've done a lot of events at the recreation center. I'm always looking for ways to fund this project. Right now, we've got about $2.4 million dollars (in work) done and paid for. We don't owe anybody money.”

She described the strides that have been made as “massive,” and she said that the Duluth business community has been “beyond generous.”

“The things that have been donated — our building's been completely remodeled,” Morris said. “We've got a new HVAC system with air-conditioning. All new windows. Flooring. The list goes on and on.”

The GNDDA even has recycled materials from another notable area building. “We have to turn a nickel into a dime,” Morris said. “We went up to Central High School, and we took things out of there. We took sinks, cabinets, changing tables — we scrounged. We framed up the windows with salvaged wood.”

“The unions in town have been fabulous with helping us out,” Morris said. “When we built our new performance pavilion, they sent a journeyman and two or three apprentices, so we didn't have to pay that cost.”

Mark Boben is board chair and project director of the GNDDA. He, too, is originally from Gary, and he went away for 30 years before returning upon his retirement. Like Morris, his interests are in giving back to the community that fostered him as a youth. “We had the old shack, when I was a kid,” he said. “We'd go there for baseball and hockey. Back in 2009, the city was in dire straits and shut down a lot of the recreation areas.” In the aftermath of this, the GNDDA was founded, community meetings were held, and Boben got a strong sense that there was a desire for the Gary rec center to be nurtured.

“The community's in transition,” Boben said. “A lot of the elderly folks are passing. They're selling their homes. We've got young families coming in. We have Stowe Elementary School there. We really wanted to help and work with the community to strengthen the social fabric.”

Boben remembers hearing early comments that suggested that the City of Duluth should foot the bill for any improvement projects. “If we want it, we've got to do it ourselves,” was Boben's response, he said. “The community — the greater Duluth community — has gotten behind us to make this the success that it's become. We live in such a giving community. It's humbling. There are so many good people and businesses. It's been fabulous.”

The GNDDA's efforts have dovetailed with the vision behind the St. Louis River Corridor project. “We were named one of the four major parks” in that area, Boben said. “That made us eligible to get half a million dollars of tourism tax. But, to qualify for that, we had to raise matching funds, and we were able to do that in cash and in-kind contributions from the business community. We're the only one of those four major parks that has done that.”

“It's been really satisfying,” Morris said. “There's almost a renaissance going on in the Western part of town, starting with Lincoln Park.” For her, the GNDDA's work has been “something positive that I can feel like I gave back.”

“Our philosophy has been to under-promise and over-deliver,” Boben said. “I think what we've done has clearly demonstrated that. It's demonstrated the competency of our organization and our board of directors. We feel good about what we've accomplished to date, and about our plans for the future.”

In addition to the new skate park, improvements are planned for the site's parking lot, and an LED sign and a gazebo will be added. “We need to continue to raise cash,” Boben said. “But, also, we need additional support from the private sector to provide materials and labor.”

While there is much work to be done, the GNDDA's existing achievements are ones that the folks in that group are quite proud of. “It's been absolutely fabulous,” said Boben. “It's humbling.”

Tony Bennett is a Duluth freelance writer and entertainment critic. He wrote this for magazine, a publication of Forum Communications Co.


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