Duluth debates church, state, and the Kroc Center

Artist's sketch of future building
An artist's sketch of how the new community center might look. Lawyers are trying to separate religious and recreational functions enough to meet Constitutional requirements.
Image courtesy Salvation Army

Young kids learn basketball in the gym at the Salvation Army every night.

The gym is in a former office building in Lincoln Park, a low-income Duluth neighborhood.

Young player
A young player learns basketball in the gym at the Salvation Army in Duluth. The logo painted on the wall is the only indication of who owns the gym.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

The Salvation Army wants to expand. Two years ago, people here jumped at the chance of winning some of the billion-dollar gift left by Joan Kroc.

A citizens' task force worked up plans for a new building to be built on city park land just west of the current building. It would include two swimming pools, gym, running track, teen center, computer lab, and other amenities.

Joan Kroc stipulated in her will that each local community must come up with matching money for an endowment to operate the center.

Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson suggested the city divert $7.5 million from a fund that's mostly used to repair city streets. In return, the city could use the Salvation Army building for its own sports and recreation programs.

"They oughtn't to do that," says Bill Van Druten, a retired psychiatrist and a freethinker.

Painting of Jesus
A small painting of Jesus decorates the wall in the entrance at the Salvation Army headquarters in Duluth
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

"It is a religious enterprise," he says. "It will have a religious facade for the neighborhood. Anything that the Army does has a religious intent. And that's perfectly fine if they want to fund it. But they really oughtn't to expect all citizens to support their particular brand of religion."

Van Druten was one of a handful of Duluth citizens who several years ago signed onto a lawsuit that forced the removal of a Ten Commandments monument from outside City Hall.

To answer questions about the separation of church and state, the city called in a lawyer who specializes in the field. She said the building should not have a religious name or use religious symbols in areas used by city programs. And she said the building should not resemble a church.

The Salvation Army's Major Mark Welsh says government has helped pay for the Army's social service programs for years, and nobody's had a problem with it. He says the Army will stay true to its mission.

"The religious symbols -- the pictures, the signage on the building -- we've always done that. That's basically our brand," he says. "That will be a deal- breaker for us."

Salvation Army sign
The sign outside the current Salvation Army building announces worship times and a message.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

The plans aren't firm yet, but Welsh says the Army will probably want a cross on the outside of the building and a cross in the chapel, which would double as a performing arts space.

But questions about the separation of church and state may not be the biggest obstacle for the center.

City Councilor Garry Krause has been asking for months for a long-range budget plan.

"Pools typically start to experience failures around eight years, rubber roofs around 10 years or so," he says. "I want to see what their projected maintenance costs are, if they're reasonable numbers into the future, and also how they plan on budgeting for that."

And another councilor, Don Ness, worries about the impact of a new recreation center on the downtown YMCA.

"If we have a brand new shiny building, that provides all the benefits of the current 'Y' but at a reduced membership cost, I do worry about the impact to the YMCA," Ness says.

He says he also needs to know more about how much benefit the city would get from its $7.5 million investment.

For Kay Biga, it's a no-brainer. She's the chair of the advisory board for the Salvation Army, and chair of the task force that's been hammering out plans for the new center. She's also a former city council member.

"The city can leverage their $7.4 million, which will be given over a six year period, and bring $40 million of new money to the community," she says. "I mean, it's a tremendous opportunity."

The city council will discuss the matter tonight, and is scheduled to vote on it in a week.

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