Land status could affect Kroc center

Some 11th-hour questions about whether land at 93-year-old Wheeler Field is a park has the potential to change the rules for approving the multimillion-dollar Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center proposed for Duluth.

Some 11th-hour questions about whether land at 93-year-old Wheeler Field is a park has the potential to change the rules for approving the multimillion-dollar Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center proposed for Duluth.

After the Planning Commission last week tabled a proposed sale of park land because of short notice and a lack of information, commissioner and Duluth real estate attorney Gilbert Harries took it upon himself to research the history of the five-acre parcel. What Harries discovered is that it is uncertain whether Wheeler Field was ever designated as a park by the City Council, City Attorney Bryan Brown said.

If the speculation holds true -- and Wheeler Field is city-owned land instead of more-protected park land -- the proposed $40 million investment by the Salvation Army could have a much easier time passing through city channels.

On the other hand, the land's status could "cloud" the piece of real estate's title of ownership and make it unattractive to the nonprofit, Brown said on Wednesday.

Brown said he has asked Administrative Services Department Director Mark McShane, Parks and Recreation Department Director Carl Seehus and city planner Kyle Deming to research the issue. Brown said he made the same request to the two department leaders several months ago.


Tim Howard, city supervisor of real property, said it's important to understand not just the title language but the city's methodology 80 years ago.

"It really gets into the realm of a legal question," Howard said.

Brown said he should have an opinion ready by Monday. That's also when the City Council is tentatively scheduled to vote on whether to approve the Kroc center's development and use agreement. In a special meeting the following day, the Planning Commission is scheduled to vote on the land sale.

"Quite frankly, I'm surprised the question wasn't asked years ago," said Planning Commission President John Vigen, who is a property appraiser. "I would hate for this to be a midnight-hour 'oops' on our part."

If the property is park land, the sale will require the approval of 10 of 13 planning commissioners to pass. It should then go to the City Council for approval on Dec. 4 and require the approval of eight of nine councilors to pass.

If it is city land, the Planning Commission won't even need to meet on the sale, Vigen said. And only a simple majority would be required from the City Council.

Messages left by the News Tribune at Harries' office and home Wednesday were not returned.

"Figuring it out requires some detective work," Brown said. "Now we must find out the conveyances and look into the use of the land over the life of it."


Newspaper accounts say Wheeler Field was established by Bert Wheeler as a playground in 1913 on the site of the former fairgrounds, Brown said. In 1925, the city purchased Wheeler Field for about $47,000 during a condemnation process.

Wheeler Field was the site of Peterson Arena before the arena burned down in 2004. Wheeler Field includes softball fields, tennis and bocce courts and is the site of a future skateboard park.

Deming said while Wheeler Field has a park name and numerous park department investments have been made there over the years, the only stipulation for the land's use they've found so far is for recreation. He said he is going back in city records to see whether the City Council officially designated it park land. The deed does not designate the property as park land, he said.

"We're not looking for a loophole, where people will go, 'Aha. They got around that one on a technicality,'" he said.

The Salvation Army --through a $1.5 billion bequest by late McDonald's heiress Joan Kroc -- has tentative plans to spend $20 million on the construction of an 85,000-square-foot community and recreation center on Grand Avenue. Another $20 million of Salvation Army money will go toward the center's operations and maintenance endowment. The city and private donors have pledged $10 million for the endowment.

Kroc center approval also hinges on $7.4 million from taxpayers, which still needs City Council approval. The deal was negotiated by Mayor Herb Bergson's administration with Salvation Army officials.

However, there have been some other concerns raised by city councilors about whether the city is getting enough for its investment as well as whether the center violates separation of church and state. It will still require at least seven of nine councilors to approve the funding.

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

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