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A 'save our building' success story: People can't imagine International Falls without the Backus Community Center

Emily Maki and Kylan Bjorkquist are characters in "Anne of Green Gables" performed on the Backus stage in March 2018.1 / 8
This former home economics classroom now serves as a dining room for two food programs, Community Cafe and Summer Food Service Program, at the Backus Community Center. Photo courtesy Backus Community Center2 / 8
Guests dine at the bi-weekly Community Cafe, a free meal for all, in the old Home Economics room of Backus Community Center.3 / 8
Ruby's Pantry, a food distribution program, is held monthly at the Backus Community Center.4 / 8
A modern photo of the Backus theater appears much as it did in the past. Facebook photo5 / 8
The original Backus Auditorium looks much the same today, seating more than 900 patrons for performances, concerts, presentations and more.6 / 8
This historic photo was shared by the Backus Community Center on its Facebook page.7 / 8
Actors perform a play on the stage of the old Falls Junior High.8 / 8

It's a dilemma for many small towns in northern Minnesota, where the town's founding fathers built grand schools and public buildings out of brick and marble and steel: what do you do with those buildings once they are phased out?

Sometimes they are demolished. Sometimes they sit empty and gradually decay. But sometimes, the community takes another look, and decides to give them new life.

That's just what the border city of International Falls has done with one — and soon, people hope, two — old school buildings in the center of town. Over the past 16 years, the Backus Community Center has gone from an empty art deco-style school with a bad roof to the busy, beating heart of the community, said executive director Ward Merrill.

"It was a real struggle," Merrill said of the school's transformation since it first closed in 1991. "But today, I hear people say, 'What would we do without the Backus building?'"

"It's exactly what it says it is, a community center," said International Falls Mayor Bob Anderson. "It's a hub for a lot of activities, especially with that 1,100 seat auditorium. It really serves the community."

After a decade of sometimes contentious conversation about what to do with the two school buildings, the nonprofit bought the properties for $800, Merrill said. For the next few years, they operated in "survival mode," he said; paying an annual $60,000 gas bill to heat the two buildings was tricky, among other issues.

During the early years, they raised money any way they could. Garage sales, passing the hat at meetings, and volunteer Kay Arnold recalled a young girl who set up a Kool-Aid stand to help raise money. She donated the entire $11 proceeds, Arnold said.

The mission of the Backus Community Center is displayed on a sign outside the building. Facebook photoThose first years of trying to rally the community around the old school buildings were tough, Arnold said. Now 75, she had attended a year or so in each school building as a child, and remembered the beautiful auditorium, the art deco floors and terrazzo stairways. She was part of the first group trying to save the Backus building.

"We just kept meeting," Arnold said. "Pretty soon the meeting rooms were full, and we had to meet on the stage." People soon began sending in donations.

Today, Arnold still volunteers every Monday at the community center. She belongs to the art club, which meets in the school's former art room but now features a pair of kilns, and she goes to most of the performances and concerts on that lovely stage.

A couple of successful fundraising pushes helped bring stability a few years after the community center opened, Merrill said. They organized a fund drive to replace the decrepit roofs on both buildings, "selling" a square foot of new roof for $10 a pop. Some people bought $100 worth of new roof, while one family sent in a $25,000 contribution, Merrill said.

After that, they raised more money to install a commercial kitchen, and then borrowed $800,000 to install an elevator and renovate the entire third floor in preparation for some long-term tenants. After that, Merrill said, they had found their place in the International Falls community.

The community center officially opened in 2002. Today, every inch of the Backus building is utilized, and they employ a full and part-time staff. In 2017, nearly 58,000 people visited the Backus Community Center for a concert, performance, basketball practice, community meal, art class, or a myriad other reasons, said administrative assistant Robin Bjorkquist.

A new arts education program this year will bring new theater-focused workshops to the center's stage, including puppeteering and playwriting classes.

"We are so full to capacity that we are renting out small spaces that look like closets," Bjorkquist said. Indeed, one of the newest Backus tenants rents a six by nine-foot square room, Merrill said.

And now, it's the Alexander Baker School's turn.

"Saving the Backus was a great move," Anderson said. He was one of the original advocates for reviving the building. And now he, too, sees potential in the Alexander Baker school.

Art Deco lettering adorns the outside of the Backus Community Center. Facebook photo"That is a very solid building, despite the fact that it's 100 years old," Anderson said. "These complexes were built to last."

The adjoining school has sat empty while the Backus Community Center has thrived. Several times over the years, Merrill said, organizers have tried to renovate the Alexander Baker School into mixed-use housing and office space, but the projects haven't materialized.

But momentum picked up again after a large number of workers were laid off from the Boise Cascade paper mill in International Falls in 2013, Merrill said. There is a vast need for affordable housing in town, where there hasn't been a new multiple-housing building constructed in nearly 40 years, Merrill said.

Plans now call for 24 affordable housing units to be remodeled on the Alexander Baker School's second floor, with a mix of anti-poverty services and early education classrooms on the first floor. Multiple partners and agencies have signed on to the project, and Merrill is cautiously hopeful. That's part of nonprofit's mission, Merrill said — to respond to the needs of the community that supports it.

"Adapting historic buildings to modern uses is tough in rural Minnesota," Merrill said. It's necessary to have perseverance, leadership, and the ability to braid together multiple sources of revenue to make such a project work, he said.

Other communities in northern Minnesota have tried to breathe new life into their old schools.

The community of Cotton, about halfway between Duluth and Virginia, has rallied around its own school-turned-community center. Old School Lives opened in mid-2012, after a group of citizens bought the former K-12 school building for $7,500.

"They sold another school in Orr for $1," said Ginger Kinsley, executive director of Old School Lives. "But it was still a bargain. We have 24 acres and a 65,000-square-foot building."

Kinsley said hard work and a willingness to experiment have been key to keeping the project going. They are mostly self-funded, with revenue coming from an on-site thrift store, mercantile, and a few residential rental spaces in former classrooms, Kinsley said.

Today, Old School Lives also houses a fitness center, a retreat center, a senior health program, in-house artists that teach classes, a coffee shop, a children's activity center, and community meals prepared out of the former school kitchen.

"It's been a challenge every year, but we are not going away," Kinsley said. "The community has really grabbed on to this place."

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