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Improving a neighborhood will lead to a better way of life

In a neighborhood -- my neighborhood -- where, not long ago, a kid shot up a convenience store and sent bloodied clerks scurrying for cover, a recreational renaissance is gathering on the horizon.

In a neighborhood -- my neighborhood -- where, not long ago, a kid shot up a convenience store and sent bloodied clerks scurrying for cover, a recreational renaissance is gathering on the horizon.

And not a moment too soon for Lincoln Park/West End and for neighboring West Duluth.

Unless you've been trapped in quicksand on Park Point the past 2½ years, you already know all about the planned 85,000-square-foot, $20 million Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center at Wheeler Field. A cloverleaf of softball fields already makes Wheeler a popular summer spot. The Kroc center -- a godsend of a project with an eight-lane pool, waterslides, classrooms, drop-in center, gymnasium, fitness center, auditorium and more -- will make Wheeler a year-around destination. Final approval is expected any day on $40 million from the Salvation Army to build the structure and to endow its future. The city of Duluth already has agreed to pitch in $7.2 million.

You're probably familiar, too, with plans to build a $15.3 million Heritage Hockey Center a few blocks from Wheeler on an old, abandoned industrial site where Clyde Iron once operated. The eyesore of a site, in plain view of Interstate 35, is about to be transformed with a two-rink hockey arena and a hall of fame where Duluth's rich hockey past can be preserved and celebrated. Adjacent to that, a $30 million commercial district is planned with an eatery, marketplace, shops, brewery and hotel. The name Hilton has been tossed around.

The commercial improvements are "on track," landowner Alex Giuliani reported this week. The hockey rinks and hall of fame are still searching for one final big donor, perhaps someone for whom the rinks could be named. Brett Hull's Home of Hockey sounds good, doesn't it? With or without that last big donor, construction is expected to start in about April, organizers promised.

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As if the Clyde projects and Kroc project weren't exciting enough for a long-overlooked corner of Duluth, additional recreational endeavors emerged this week.

"A new Miracle League field [will be] built next to the Kroc center, funded by private donations and with help from the Minnesota Twins," Mayor Herb Bergson announced during his annual State of the City speech, which took place Monday at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. "This special, cushioned, synthetic field will provide children and adults with physical and mental challenges a chance to play baseball."

In other words, Minnesota's third Miracle League field will help more of Duluth's young people get off the sidelines and into the game, no matter their ability level. Dedicated volunteers and a group called Twin Ports Buddy Sports will be working hard to make the $225,000 to $250,000 field a reality by late summer. They deserve as much support as can be mustered.

Also during his speech, Bergson announced that Giuliani, the same Clyde Iron landowner already working on the marketplace and other amenities, "has agreed to build a covered soccer facility, which will help the world's most popular sport continue to grow right here in Duluth."

Long a soccer player himself, Giuliani told me this week the heated, privately funded, $1 million to $2 million soccer building most likely will be built somewhere on the Clyde site. Here's hoping he won't even have to consider city-owned land elsewhere.

"This is something our community certainly lacks," Giuliani said of the soccer structure. "We have 6,000 people in the Arrowhead region who play soccer. That's more than all other sports combined. This won't be a soccer stadium. It'll be more of a practice facility. And it'll be able to be used for more than soccer, too. It could be used for rugby, lacrosse, softball practices or more. It will be multiple-use."

That's a lot going on. And it's not like the Kroc center, hockey center, Miracle League field and covered soccer facility were planned together as part of some grand neighborhood revitalization effort. They'll end up that way, though, and that's great.

The improvements will offer stability to a working-class neighborhood once dominated by single-family, owner-occupied homes, but which has since come to be filled with rentals and transiency. And they'll give kids things to do, places to belong and opportunities to discover talents they didn't know they had.

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All of which will be better than what a 15-year-old Lincoln Park/West End boy stands accused of doing on a Monday night in early November. Possibly as part of a gang initiation, the boy entered the Spur station at 27th Avenue West and Michigan Street. He took out a gun and, without provocation, fired at least six times at two store clerks, hitting them three times each. He then reached into a cash register and stole cash.

Police, later watching store video of the crime, recognized the shooter at once and were able to make an arrest. "Our crime is the same people over and over again," Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said. "We know their full names and dates of birth by memory."

That's of little comfort. But perhaps soon, folks running a Kroc center, hockey center, soccer building and other facilities will know the names and birthdates of Duluth's young people just as well. And for better reasons.

Chuck Frederick is the News Tribune's deputy editorial page editor. He can be reached weekdays at 723-5316 or at cfrederick@duluthnews.com .

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