No logical reason to let Kroc Center slip away


St. Paul Pioneer Press © August 22, 2006

There are deadlines, like those you set to lose weight or quit smoking, and there are deadlines, as set forth by bosses, judges and the Internal Revenue Service. The deadline that has seemingly killed a proposal to build an ambitious recreation and cultural center in Frogtown leans much more to the first variety than to the second.

It’s been two years since St. Paul first bid for a Kroc Community Center, one of 34 promised around the country with a $1.5 billion bequest to the Salvation Army from Joan B. Kroc, the McDonald’s heiress who died in 2003. From the outset, city and Salvation Army officials seemed married to Frogtown as an ideal neighborhood, meeting Kroc’s broad criteria to serve poorer communities of need, preferably in the inner city.

The search for a specific locale, joined by elected and community leaders and civic-minded developers, has gone through three potential sites and three deadlines since February, and backers are no further ahead than when first applying for the center. The latest of these deadlines passed last week and the Salvation Army, understandably concerned about construction costs ballooning with the wait, is anxious to move ahead through the green lights in other cities. Last week, officials with the Chicago office of the Salvation Army told St. Paul that, barring an agreeable land deal, they’re going to look further down the list of Midwest cities eager for a center.

“We’ve worked for almost two years in this community, and we’ve seen the need, we feel the need in this community, and we would like very much to put one in Frogtown,” says Doug Franzen, a Twin Cities lobbyist working for the Chicago office of the Salvation Army. “We have a commitment to this part of town and, right now, we’re just grieving.”

While one ponders the depth of this commitment in light of the decision to move on, more puzzling is the tunnel vision that developed somewhere along the path from the initial selection of St. Paul and the lapsed deadlines to, ultimately, the dead end.

Frogtown is by no means St. Paul’s only neighborhood “of need,” yet the interested parties admit to such a tight focus on Frogtown they haven’t given serious looks elsewhere. Kroc had roots in Frogtown, and from the beginning of the proposal, St. Paul councilwoman Deb Montgomery and others have regarded Frogtown as both a symbolic and pragmatic locale.

Are there promising spots along Pierce Butler and Phalen Boulevard, the North End or the Greater East Side? Nobody knows. Perhaps the issues that derailed the Frogtown sites may blunt explorations elsewhere in a city where vacant acreage is scarce and property owners, regardless of the Salvation Army’s nonprofit, faith-based mission, expect fair market value on a sale.

Still, it would behoove state and local officials who have fought so hard for Frogtown to continue and broaden their fight.

The only Kroc Center up and running, in San Diego, lists an indoor soccer field, music room, aquatic and fitness centers, computer lab and a 500-seat theater among its amenities. If the center planned for St. Paul is similar in scope, it would be a destination for residents throughout the city. While the city would have to come up with about $12.5 million to endow the center, $50 million would come directly from the Kroc bequest, planting a jewel in any city lucky to get it.

“The Salvation Army never anticipated this inability to have land control, but I think it would be very foolish of or arbitrary for them to say they’re right now going to give the money to (another city). We’ve studiously avoided that decision at this point,” Franzen says. “We would give it a lot of thought and prayer. I’m praying for a miracle, and the Salvation Army has never been an institution to foreclose on miracles.”

Miracles notwithstanding, a wide-angle lens might prove just as effective.

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