Western Duluth recreation center sees surge of support

As volunteers swarmed a future community center in Duluth's Gary-New Duluth neighborhood Wednesday morning, project coordinator Mark Boben talked about what he called "the tipping point," describing it as the moment "when people realize something...

Tom Hansen
Volunteers Tom Hansen (from left), Joe Kirkeby and John Miller install a new window in the Gary-New Duluth Community Center on Wednesday morning. (Bob King /
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As volunteers swarmed a future community center in Duluth’s Gary-New Duluth neighborhood Wednesday morning, project coordinator Mark Boben talked about what he called “the tipping point,” describing it as the moment “when people realize something is really going to happen, and they want to be a part of it.”
Boben expressed confidence the community’s vision for the new facility and surrounding recreational amenities is quickly tipping into reality.
He estimated that supporters have poured the equivalent of more than $350,000 into the project in the form of money, materials and labor.
Nick Dinehart, president of Dinehery Fence, measured newly installed windows Wednesday, as he laid plans to fashion decorative panels to protect them from vandalism. Using a plasma cutter to carve through steel plating, he aims to hand design and depict different sports and activities that will take place at the park in the future.
“I’ve lived in Duluth all my life, and I’m 100 percent behind anything that will make things better for our kids,” Dinehart said.  
Jim Petrich, an electrician, helped to wire the kitchen of the newly remodeled community center. He and other members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 242 have volunteered their time and expertise.
“It’s a good project,” Petrich said. “It’s good for the community and good for our union.”
Petrich, who grew up in Gary-New Duluth and still makes his home there, said he’s excited what the new facility will mean for the neighborhood.
Not all of the volunteer labor has involved people from the local trades, however.
John Miller heads up a crew of 11 retirees who have been volunteering their services three days weekly.
“We even bring our own coffee and donuts,” he said.
When asked what keeps the volunteer crew together and coming back to the project week after week, Miller said: “Mostly it’s friendship. The only thing the guys complain about is if someone’s late or if there isn’t enough work to do.”
That hasn’t been much of a problem lately, considering the scale of the project at hand.
The community center has been closed since 2009. In preparation for its renovation, the old building was gutted. The updated facility already boasts new plumbing, wiring, windows and a modern heating/cooling system. It’s on track to reopen this summer.
One of the members of Miller’s crew, John Vekich, is a retired teacher who previously worked at neighboring Stowe Elementary School. He recalls when Gary-New Duluth was a thriving community with the U.S. Steel plant at its economic heart.
The U.S. Steel Duluth Works operated from 1916 to 1981. Its closure brought hard times to Gary-New Duluth, but Vekich expressed his hopes that the neighborhood can be revitalized with the help of projects such as the one in which he is now involved.
“It’s going to be beautiful,” Vekich said.
The city aims to chip in $500,000 to help with the project, but Jim Filby Williams, Duluth’s director of public administration, said those leveraged dollars will likely result in a $1.5 million project.
“The most valuable thing with a project like this is not so much about money or even a concrete product. It’s the sense of community it creates,” he said.
Filby Williams said he is optimistic the effort now under way in Gary-New Duluth will inspire other neighborhoods, as the city prepares to invest $18 million in communities located along the St. Louis River Corridor.
“We hope what’s happening here also will occur at Memorial Park, Lincoln Park, the Wheeler Athletic Complex and at smaller neighborhood parks,” he said.
Filby Williams observed: “Members of every neighborhood have the capacity to dream bigger and do more together than we might initially imagine. Can every neighborhood raise $1 million? Probably not. But each and every community can marshal the local labor and ideas necessary to make the product of our limited financial investments as a city that much more valuable.”
Boben said the first phase of the project will be completed this summer, with the reopening of the community center building, and the creation of two new soccer fields, a pavilion, a garden and an area to accommodate pleasure skaters.
Longer-range plans call for a dog park; a skateboard park; a multi-purpose sport court, complete with basketball hoops; a disc golf course; and the extension of a community-long bike path through the park.
There’s a fringe benefit to involving neighbors, according to Filby Williams, who noted that when community members work together to make neighborhood improvements, they are more likely to commit to maintaining them on an ongoing basis, too.  
Boben said the new community center will include a small office for police.
Duluth Police Officer Tom Sewell looks forward to spending time at the community center and recreation area in hopes of forging stronger relationships with area youth.
“Most kids are curious about police. First, they call me Officer Sewell. Then, they call me Officer Tom. And then, they just call me Tom,” he said.
That’s a positive progression in Sewell’s eyes.
“Sometimes, we’re just seen as police, not as people. But when kids get to know us, they realize we have families of our own, and we’re here to help them,” he said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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