Growing up in Gary-New Duluth, a neighborhood in the shadow of a now-shuttered steel plant, Mark Boben said he learned not to expect much in the way of amenities.
"We heard all the time that things were 'good enough,'" he recalled.
But Boben doesn't want another generation to grow up in the same neighborhood with low expectations.
"Now is the time for Gary-New Duluth to do something truly exceptional," Boben said, as he watched workers surfacing a newly poured multi-use sports court Tuesday morning. Soon after it cures, he expects to see the concrete slab busy with pickup basketball, hopscotch, pickleball matches and four square.
The court is just the latest addition to the Gary-New Duluth Recreation Center, a work in progress that Boben now anticipates will take about $2.6 million to complete. So far, he figures supporters have invested about $2 million in the project, much of that in the form of in-kind donations of materials and plenty of sweat equity.
To date, the city of Duluth has invested more than $722,000 in the center, using sales tax proceeds earmarked for recreational attractions throughout the St. Louis River corridor.
To see how the neighborhood has been able to leverage those funds has been nothing short impressive, said Jim Filby Williams, Duluth's director of public administration.
"The level of inspiration and hard work and generosity that the Gary-New Duluth community and the Gary-New Duluth Development Alliance have harnessed is just extraordinary. And it's been a great example for other organizations that have been similarly inspired," said Filby Williams.
Boben noted that Duluth's western neighborhoods boast a deep bench of talent in the trades and local labor organizations have been eager to provide assistance.
"The unions have been fantastic. And the private sector has been very generous," Boben said.
Iron Workers Local No. 512 installed all the rebar for the court. HMI (aka Home Menders Inc.) managed the pour and the finishing work at no charge, and Duluth Ready Mix supplied around 150 cubic yards of concrete for the court at a deep discount, Boben said.
It's exactly the kind of collaborative effort that has gone into transforming a previously neglected community center surrounded by fields that were often damp, if not full of standing water.
A lot of time and money went into site work and drainage to make the property more usable. That's not an investment most people recognize, but Boben said it was essential to set a proper stage for further development.
"Now we've got the best soccer fields in the city," he said
A dog park has been added to the mix. And plans call for a raised-bed community garden to go in next.
A skate park is being designed, in hopes of construction beginning next year, but Boben said more money will need to be raised first.
"We had to turn every penny into a nickel," Boben said.
Besides seeking local buy-in, Boben has also looked for outside support, such as the $50,000 grant the rec center received from the Minnesota Vikings and U.S. Bank to help install and equip the new sports court.
Boben said he sees the rec center as more than a facility.
"It's about our future. We need something positive and productive for our youth to do - a place where they can develop their bodies and minds," he said.
Toward that end, the community has partnered with the local YMCA to provide youth programming at the center free of charge.
On any given day, 20 to 40 young people take part, said Program Director Harrison French.
"Now, with school out, a lot of them are looking for something fun to do," he said. Program activities include table tennis, sports, games and nature hikes.
"The sports court will bring us to the next level. Well be able to offer so much more," French said.
A recent UMD grad, French has been working at the center since April of 2017.
"Since my first day, I've been welcomed with open arms. It feels like family," he said. "We teach young people the value of respect and responsibility. And we provide everyone a safe place to come, even if they don't have that at home. We want them to respect themselves, respect each other and respect the community," French said.
To help raise money for the center and its programming, French has created a crowdfunding account and is poised to collect more than $1,200 if he finishes Grandma's Marathon this weekend.