Mar. 20—Leslie Bucar had never been to Stowe Elementary School before she was hired to coordinate programming at the afterschool KEY Zone program and the neighboring Gary-New Duluth Recreation Center in August 2019.
She so quickly fell in love with the area that she and her husband recently finished building a new house just blocks away.
"We're so far west, people in their minds think we're like halfway to the (Twin) Cities," Bucar joked. "But it's this beautiful little gem of a place in the city. ... Once you experience this area, you can't really leave. The community and the people are so great."
Bucar's position is the result of a unique partnership between the school, community center and the Duluth Area Family YMCA, taking advantage of a sprawling recreation area and trail system to offer a variety of nature-based educational activities to local kids.
"It really is such a wonderful place," Bucar said. "Anyone who comes out here can't say enough good things about it — especially our forest. It's such a magical place for those kids; they get those great memories of playing in forts and being in the woods. We're really lucky out here."
A massive revitalization project continues to take shape in the western Duluth neighborhood, bringing modern amenities and programming to a once-neglected area that is still commonly associated with the loss of its steel plant 40 years ago.
A shuttered community center building has undergone a major overhaul. An old baseball diamond has been replaced by two soccer fields, accompanied by an open-air pavilion and play area. Across 101st Avenue West, there sits a new dog park, community gardens and multi-use sports courts.
And, sooner or later, skateboarders are expected to flock to the area for a new 10,000-square-foot skate park. Several truckloads of concrete were recently delivered and crews will soon begin a third season of construction on the park.
"It's going to be the crown jewel," said Mark Boben, chair of the Gary-New Duluth Development Alliance.
Grassroots effort builds
Boben's group formed in 2013 as a resident-driven response to the city of Duluth's decision to close the aging community center due to budgetary concerns in 2009. The Development Alliance sought community input on components and started raising funds to make its vision come to life.
To date, Boben said the nonprofit has received approximately $2.3 million in donations, grants and in-kind services from individuals, businesses, government and unions. The group operates the facilities under an agreement with the city, which still owns the property.
"It means a lot to the community," said Boben, who grew up about eight blocks away and returned to Duluth in 2009 after a career in the oil and gas industry. "It's something that's desperately needed here."
The funding included $500,000 from the city of Duluth as part of the St. Louis River corridor project, along with $100,000 each from Canadian National Railway and Vintage Acres, the community of 300 manufactured homes on the other side of Stowe.
But much of it comes in smaller pieces.
"Some of my parents' friends are still alive," Boben said. "Every once in a while I'll get an envelope with $3 or $5 in cash. I've got another lady who writes out a check out every month for church and another one to us. It's not a big check; it's $25. But it brings a tear to my eye to see how much people care."
When the concrete was delivered in February, it came on five semitrucks courtesy of Kivi Trucking. It's one of many examples of businesses providing free or discounted services..
Darrel Johnson has done all the excavating at the site, turning around and donating 10% of the invoices back to the Development Alliance. He also did the excavating for the K-9 Haas Memorial Dog Park as a pure donation.
"That basketball court is probably the best I've ever seen in Duluth," Johnson said. "And the soccer fields. It's state-of-the-art. And a lot of volunteers have helped us, laying pipe and spreading dirt. ... It's just been a good community project. It's great to see progress."
Last summer, with the pandemic raging, Johnson and his wife chipped in $2,500 to fund a meal-distribution program at the community center.
Johnson said he became involved because he's seen the community centers of his youth fall by the wayside. Buildings at Memorial, Irving and Merritt parks have all been closed and demolished in recent years.
"This is a way to give back to the city park system that I had growing up," he said.
Skate park will bring 'different vibe'
The final major phase, work began on the skate park in 2019 and crews were back out last summer.
Several large concrete components are in place, offering a small glimpse of what's to come. Next up will be the construction of the retaining wall surrounding the park.
Boben is not putting any official timeline on when the project will be complete, noting there is still significant fundraising to be done. He said the Development Alliance has already invested some $300,000 in the skate park, but still needs, roughly, another $400,000 — owing, in large part, to the specialized labor needed to construct curved concrete surfaces.
Ben Olson, owner of Damage Boardshop in Lincoln Park, has helped coordinate numerous fundraisers and raffles over the better part of a decade. He said the skate park will be an attraction for people well beyond the western Duluth area.
"If you build a great skate park, people will come from everywhere," Olson said. "The way skateboarding has been growing — not just here in Duluth, but in the whole United States — every town kind of needs to have a skate park, just like they would need a baseball field."
The rec area once included a makeshift skate park — essentially a few deteriorating metal ramps in a crumbling parking lot. But the new facility, designed by nationally recognized skate park architect Mark Leski, will be fully concrete and incorporate a "skate plaza" design.
Olson said the Duluth park may be slightly smaller than its outdoor, concrete counterpart built in Superior's Heritage Park about 20 years ago.
"But it'll have a different vibe than the Superior park," he said. "Overall, this will definitely be one of the better parks in the area. Being fully concrete and having that skateboard plaza feel to it — we don't really have that updated kind of skate park here."
The project has received support from Carpenters Local 361, whose apprentices have been building forms for concrete pouring.
"It's good on-site training for us," instructor Joel Stone said. "But it's also good outreach. They're trying to better the community."
The Gary-New Duluth Development Alliance continues to seek contributions:
— Venmo: @GNDSKATEPARK
— PayPal: GNDCommunity
— Mail: GND Development Alliance, 2630 W. Superior St., Duluth, MN 55806
This article was edited at 12:37 p.m. on March 20 to remove an inaccurate reference to Darrel Johnson's high school. It was originally posted at 8:30 a.m. The News Tribune regrets the error.