Kroc project faces hurdles

Depending on who you talk to, the snowflake-intricate and equally delicate deal for the proposed $20 million Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Duluth is on the verge of either collapse or completion.

Depending on who you talk to, the snowflake-intricate and equally delicate deal for the proposed $20 million Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Duluth is on the verge of either collapse or completion.

If it's collapse, failure wouldn't come for a lack of time.

According to the earliest predictions, construction on the Duluth Kroc center should have begun a year ago, and Duluth's final bid has missed three deadlines.

If the project is completed, a struggling area of West Duluth will see within two years an 85,000-square-foot community and recreation center paid for mostly by the Salvation Army.

As the city comes down to the wire on committing to the project, two obstacles loom: the sale of public park land, and the separation of church and state.


Meanwhile, the Salvation Army appears poised to funnel $30 million here to build, own and run the Duluth complex. The Christian nonprofit is relying on $7.5 million in taxpayer money, as well as the purchase of Wheeler Field land at Grand Avenue and 34th Avenue West.

A line-in-the-sand stance on the separation of church and state could scuttle the project. It also could insulate the city from a costly First Amendment legal challenge.

"It's that public-private partnership that's causing the problems," Mayor Herb Bergson said.

It was Bergson's idea in 2004 to use city money, by kicking Fond-Du-Luth Casino revenue toward an operations and maintenance endowment. The Salvation Army requires Kroc center applicants to provide at least half of the endowment -- $10 million, in Duluth's case. Duluth was lagging far behind the required amount when Bergson stepped in and got the City Council's informal backing for the casino revenue diversion.

Even while expressing concerns about the Kroc project, Duluth city councilors are careful to first heap thanks and praise on the Salvation Army. Still, some people close to the project said progress has been stifled by circumstances that no one can really be blamed for.

One is the use of public money, which means dealing with unpredictable and independent-minded elected officials as well as soupy Constitutional issues.

Another is that the whole process is new to just about everyone. There is only one model in the country -- a $100 million Kroc Center in San Diego, Calif., that Joan Kroc oversaw before her death.

Another is that job changes and illness of key negotiators on both sides led to delays.


Finally, Salvation Army decision-makers in Chicago have never definitively said that Duluth has the project. That lack of approval has instilled uncertainty throughout the process.

Meanwhile, communication between local Salvation Army officials and City Hall is slowed by government bureaucracy and the Salvation Army's sturdy hierarchical design.


The Salvation Army firmly opposes a legal opinion the city received last week, which recommended removing or toning down religious symbols inside and outside the proposed building to avoid separation of church and state issues. An artist's rendering of the center shows a steeple and cross.

Maj. Mark Welsh of the Duluth Salvation Army said his organization recently got its own legal opinion that says the restrictions would unnecessarily violate its religious freedoms.

The City Council is scheduled to vote Dec. 4 on the Kroc center development and use agreement, the $7.5 million financial contribution, and the sale of land at Wheeler Field.

"My position is that the recommended items are not written in stone," Bergson said. "We can just take their word. To expect to put it in writing is not acceptable for them, and I understand why. Sometimes you have to say, 'It's just too good a deal, and we'll take our chances.' "

Franzen said the Salvation Army couldn't live with contract language prohibiting the display of religious symbols.


"If that's the case, I think it is dead," he said.

"For better or worse, this has been a highly political process," said 3rd District Councilor Russ Stewart. "From my perspective, the document that comes before the council must meet all legal requirements. If the Salvation Army wants the public's money, then the Salvation Army must be willing to comply."

Hundreds of Duluthians have been involved in attracting the Kroc center. A "no" vote could be political suicide -- or possibly viewed as bold financial stewardship.

Slow going

The Salvation Army's Central Territorial Headquarters oversees the organization's work in 11 Midwestern states, including Minnesota. The Central Territory eventually will receive more than $400 million from the Kroc family.

So far, none of the nine planned Kroc centers has broken ground. Only one -- in Grand Rapids, Mich. -- has received the official OK from Chicago, said Maj. Ralph Bukiewicz, Kroc centers' co-coordinator for the Salvation Army's regional offices.

"Duluth has been the only community that has put the project on pause, so to speak," Bukiewicz said. "The rest of the communities have worked quickly through these issues without asking the Salvation Army to deny who we are.''

Franzen noted that the city of Duluth and state have contracted with the Salvation Army for years for transitional housing without a problem. And Duluthians often vote in church basements, Franzen said.


The Salvation Army is an evangelical Christian church. But it will not try to convert people or urge community center visitors to partake in religious activities, Welsh said.

In fact, the Salvation Army is one of many religious groups that get tax dollars. In exchange, none is allowed to discriminate in hiring or provision of services.

Bergson and News Tribune reporter Chuck Frederick individually toured Kroc Center in San Diego last year. Both said the religious aspect is so subtle it's easy to forget you are in a church-run facility.

The current agreement says city money would go only to pay for recreational activities. In exchange for the city's financial contribution, the Parks and Recreation Department gets 750 hours a year for basketball leagues, youth swims and other activities.

At Large City Councilor Don Ness said he remains skeptical the city is getting value for its investment. That money could fix a lot of roads, he said.

"It's a membership-based service, and it may be cheaper than the YMCA," said Ness, who used to sit on the YMCA board of directors. "Are we putting the YMCA out of business?"

Then there's the Duluth Planning Commission. It tabled on Tuesday the 5-acre Wheeler Field land sale, which requires approval from 10 of 13 commissioners. A few commissioners said they weren't given enough warning or information to make a decision at that time. The City Council can't consider the land sale until it's approved by the commission.

Welsh said on Friday that losing the Wheeler Field site could mean going back to the drawing board.


On Nov. 27, the Salvation Army is scheduled to make another presentation to the council before the big votes.

"We're trusting at this point that it will be resolved one way or the other by early December," Bukiewicz said.

If the Duluth Kroc Center fails, Minnesota will be left out. Joan Kroc's hometown of St. Paul lost its bid because organizers failed three times to find a suitable construction site.

CHRIS HAMILTON covers the Duluth community and city government. He can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5502 or by e-mail at .

What To Read Next
Get Local