Encounter Youth Center celebrates 100,000 visitors with miniature golf invitation
The Encounter Youth Center is inviting grownups for some miniature golf this weekend. The Christian facility in the former Aad Shrine Auditorium at 201 E. First St. in Duluth will celebrate its eighth anniversary in November. Just as significant ...
The Encounter Youth Center is inviting grownups for some miniature golf this weekend.
The Christian facility in the former Aad Shrine Auditorium at 201 E. First St. in Duluth will celebrate its eighth anniversary in November. Just as significant to Executive Director Ryan Underwood, staff and volunteers is another milestone: Sometime this month, the 100,000th visit will be made to the Encounter, which is operated by Head of the Lakes Youth for Christ.
The Encounter's activities are almost entirely geared toward the under-21 crowd. But for this weekend, the Encounter wanted to welcome the greater community, Underwood said.
"We feel like (100,000 visits is) a pretty substantial number of times that the doors opened and closed, and what it signifies is the relationships we've been able to build over the years with these kids," Underwood said. "So we wanted to do something that would involve the community as a whole."
Today through Saturday, the youth center's signature skate park will be supplanted by a miniature golf course set up through the nearly 38,000-square-foot building. Anyone is invited to play for free. On Sunday, an open house will feature building tours and ice cream provided by Bridgeman's.
The youth center is probably best known for the skate park, which is the only indoor facility for skateboarders in the area, Underwood said. It attracts boarders from as far away as Ashland and Ely, particularly in the winter.
It's also known for concerts. Bigger-name Christian bands have performed in the auditorium, with a venue known as the Red Room used as a stage for local groups. Those groups aren't required to have Christian content, although they are expected to follow guidelines to keep the material appropriate for all ages, Underwood said.
But the activities are merely the means to an end, Underwood said.
"People know the building, and they might associate it with the skate park or maybe a concert or something," he said. "But they don't understand that the bulk of our money is going to pay people to be here for relationships with young people."
The youth center got off to an inauspicious start, said Mark Pavola, who was executive director until a year ago, when he became pastor of Bayside Baptist Church in Superior. "We signed the purchase agreement with $10.73 in the checkbook for a half-million-dollar building" in August 2001.
Pavola, who remains on the group's board, said when the Encounter was able to go from that point to opening its doors in a little more than a year, he became convinced it would be there for the long haul. "If God was going to provide what was needed to get it going, he would provide what was needed to keep it going," he said.
Like most nonprofits, though, Head of the Lakes Youth for Christ has had a challenging year, said Underwood, who was youth pastor at Duluth Gospel Tabernacle before succeeding Pavola last year. He had to reduce the number of full-time program directors from three to two this year.
Rental income helps: Hillside Church, a cheerleading class and a church basketball league are among groups that pay to use the facility. A few parking spaces are rented to Dunbar's Auto Body, on the other side of First Street, a fact that office manager Jody Nelson appreciates.
"This is not always the best neighborhood," said Nelson, who has worked at Dunbar's for 10 years. "I like knowing that my car is right across the street at the end of the day."
Russ Bradley, a Duluth police community officer whose beat includes the First Street corridor, said he likes the fact that the Encounter offers kids a place to get off the street where their parents know that rules are upheld.
"It's been a good, positive thing to have it in the neighborhood," Bradley said.