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Local View: Credit Roosevelt, Panama Canal for Duluth heritage center — really

From the column: "Roosevelt, without a doubt, built the Duluth Heritage Sports Center — nearly 100 years after his death. His words and his vision of what it means to be a citizen emphatically resonated in our small community."

Duluth Heritage Center outside.jpg
The outside of the Essentia Duluth Heritage Sports Center on Feb. 13, 2021, in Duluth, Minn. (Mick Hatten/The Rink Live)

This is a story of how leadership matters, a story of how words matter, and a story of how spirit and inspiration matter. And it’s about how all that stuff matters even long after a leader has breathed his final breath.

In the early to mid stages of the effort to build and pay for the Essentia Duluth Heritage Center, a multipurpose sports and community center in Duluth’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, the group behind it, a coalition of community-minded citizens passionate about kids, families, and helping kids grow athletically and as citizens, was inspired by a a Margaret Mead quote. The famous American cultural anthropologist said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

As we racked our brains to rally the community around our effort, we lurched forward and backward with successes and failures. We frequently faced crises that threatened to close the project down. Time and again, with perseverance and the help from inspiring philanthropists, we warded off foreclosure and kept pressing ahead.

One of our leaders, Dick Loraas, often made his way down the hill to my office, his head low, maybe in hopes of finding something miraculous down there. Maybe a misplaced million dollars or two. We'd exchange a couple silent nods; then, invariably, he’d say something like, “If we don't have $150,000 by Friday, our project is dead. The bank needs to get paid." He certainly knew. He headed 17 banks in Indiana before coming back to his hometown Duluth for retirement. We'd collapse in my office’s chairs and stare at each other. We'd feel the anxiety welling.

After one of these painful occasions, I plopped down in front of my computer for fresh inspiration. Our goal, I knew, was to use sports and other activities to influence kids and to help them build character and become great citizens. One in our group was fond of saying, "Not everyone can become a pro athlete, but everyone can become a great citizen."

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So I Googled "citizenship," and I found, immediately, President Theodore Roosevelt's speech to the University of Paris in 1910. Called "Citizenship in a Republic," his words consumed me. France and America are republics, he said, and our nation doesn’t have the luxury of sitting on our tail and being led around by a dictator. We must become engaged in our labor and our government. We must strive to succeed. We must get back up after we are knocked down. We must persevere. We must help others do the same.

I realized that what he said a century ago was what we were working to accomplish in Duluth: create opportunity for all and build out the components of citizenship. This was our mission.

I called Dick. We immediately changed all of our communications to highlight Roosevelt and citizenship. He was made prominent in our videos, presentation materials, and, most importantly, our spirit.

And after that, millions and millions of philanthropic dollars started pouring in. We paid off a monumental $20 million project in record time, mostly with private contributions. Philanthropists also loved Roosevelt’s words. They saw the hope. They knew about hard work and perseverance, and they were prone to helping others.

Roosevelt, without a doubt, built the Duluth Heritage Sports Center — nearly 100 years after his death. His words and his vision of what it means to be a citizen emphatically resonated in our small community.

History is alive in Duluth. President Theodore Roosevelt is alive in Duluth.

And here’s a “Twilight Zone” twist to this tale. All the while we were working so hard to rehab the old Clyde Iron manufacturing facility into a dynamic new use, we had little awareness of the connection between the property and Roosevelt. Most historians agree his greatest accomplishment in office was his role in building the Panama Canal. Clyde Iron, as it turns out, was a key player in the Panama Canal and won a silver medal at the Pan Pacific Conference in San Francisco in 1915, the celebration of the canal’s completion. The Duluth manufacturer was lauded for providing the mammoth industrial cranes that helped build the canal.

Even with this tie unknown to us, the spirit of President Theodore Roosevelt led us to victory. His spirit brought Democrats and Republicans, public entities and private entities, the wealthy and the poor, and even liberals and conservatives together for shared success and for a demonstration of citizenship. His spirit led to the repurposing of the dilapidated industrial site that once contributed to his success in building the Panama Canal.

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Somehow this all came together in the center of the continent, on the shore of the great inland sea, far from D.C. It came together because history is alive in America and because we are all citizens in a republic.

Pat Francisco is chairman of the Duluth Heritage Sports Center Foundation. He is a former player and assistant coach for the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs men's hockey team.

pat francisco.jpg
Pat Francisco.

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