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New life for Harrison means stronger Duluth neighborhoods

The homeless man claimed he didn't intend to torch the building, that he was just trying to stay warm when, in July, he started a fire in an old coal chute using newspapers. But when the blaze got away from Tylor Ray Olson, the Harrison Community...

The homeless man claimed he didn't intend to torch the building, that he was just trying to stay warm when, in July, he started a fire in an old coal chute using newspapers. But when the blaze got away from Tylor Ray Olson, the Harrison Community Recreation Center lost its boiler, electrical system and several floor joists.

And in a flash Lincoln Park/West End lost one of its main community gathering spots -- its place to vote, to get together with neighbors and to meet about things going on. Baby showers, youth activities, lunches for seniors and other functions that filled the community center 23 days a month were forced to move elsewhere.

The neighborhood polling place was switched to the Wheeler Fieldhouse -- which is in a different neighborhood.

"The majority of the community ... thought we'd lost the building," Harrison Community Club President Joe Perfetti told the News Tribune editorial page staff this week.

Well, not so fast. With a nod to neighborhood pride, community activism and a City Hall that decided not to give up on one of its rec centers, $286,000 of repairs and renovations were launched this week at Harrison. The building is being saved.

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"It's great," Perfetti said. "We're now talking about programming for the future, so we are moving ahead."

Insurance will pay for much of the work with the city picking up the $100,000 deductible. Of that, the community club agreed to pay at least $20,000. A spaghetti dinner and other fundraisers netted $19,000, and this weekend when residents drop by to drop off junk carpets, couches and other throwaways, Perfetti and others hope they'll also drop off additional donations. What residents don't come up with the city will cover with capital investment funds, a grant from the Duluth Legacy Endowment Fund and other sources.

"Without Harrison, there really isn't a public place for people in Lincoln Park to go and get together. People have had to go elsewhere," Perfetti said. "That's not good for our neighborhood."

It wouldn't be good for any neighborhood -- or for Duluth. City officials, neighborhood activists and residents showed their understanding of that reality by stepping up for down-and-out structure.

Olson, the 20-year-old who started the fire, was ordered by a judge in January to pay $100,000 restitution. He's working hard to do that, Perfetti said, and has even found a place to live. Part of his hard work will be organizing a fundraiser basketball tournament this summer at Harrison.

"We're trying to give him a chance," Perfetti said. "We're trying to engage him and help him."

No surprise there. After all, like Harrison, Olson is from Lincoln Park/West End.

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