North Brainerd residents on Monday offered mixed feedback to proposals to establish a community center for health and wellness at the now vacant Whittier Elementary school. While many expressed regrets the school closed in 2008 and concerns about traffic, others seemed resigned that the building would not reopen as a public school again.
Northern Pines Mental Health Center Executive Director Glenn Anderson outlined plans for a community center that would share space with The Center (formerly Lakes Area Senior Activity Center), provide office staff, office space for several children’s programs and a pre-school daycare center. Classroom space, according to the narrative, would be used to provide community education and prevention, as well as healthy lifestyle education sessions. The gym, according to the proposal, would be used for sports/recreational purposes, theater productions and community meetings.
“This is going to be more for the community part of our work, not therapy,” Anderson said.
Carla Staffon, a north Brainerd resident, expressed regret the Brainerd School Board closed the site where students first attended classes, starting in 1893.
She cited traffic concerns and pointed out that while north Brainerd had other non-residential facilities, Whittier was located in the heart of the community.
Another north Brainerd resident, Pat Gimbel, had concerns about possible increased traffic and questioned the wisdom of letting Northern Pines own the building.
“When you own the property, you can do pretty much what you want with it,” she said.
Anderson countered that Northern Pines would be subject the Brainerd city zoning regulations.
“It’s not like we can literally do anything we want,” Anderson said.
Some members of the crowd of about 50 people were receptive to Northern Pines’ idea of a community center.
“I really support your idea,” Pam Stock, a north Brainerd resident and Crosby-Ironton School District teacher, said. “This is never going to be a school again folks. I think this is a great idea”
Brainerd City Council member Chip Borkenhagen said creative thought went into presenting an alternative to having the 1939 school building torn down.
While he said he would prefer that Whittier continue as a school, that scenario was unlikely.
“It’s pretty clear that’s not an option,” he said.
Borkenhagen said it was refreshing that people were willing to make adjustments to preserve the school building and spoke highly of Northern Pines Mental Health Center, which has operated in the community since 1964.
“If it weren’t for Northern Pines I wouldn’t be here tonight,” Borkenhagen said.
Dianne Resch, who lives near Gregory Park, said north Brainerd was a close-knit neighborhood whose residents host hundreds of trick-or-treaters because they love their neighborhood.
“Just be a good neighbor,” she said.
Anderson said Northern Pines planned to offer a daycare that would be capable of offering services to children with special needs but would not be exclusively serve those children. He said his intent would be to keep as much of the building as “classroom-like” as possible as a site for parenting and nutrition classes and the site of a community garden. He said they would try to incorporate the neighbors’ preferences into their plans and even offer free, permanent office space for the neighborhood association.
DeAnn Barry, executive director of The Center, said the joint project would be a very good partnership for her organization that would provide them with additional space. When The Center’s summer Gregory Park concerts were rained out they have been conducted at the performances at its Kingwood building but the stage at Whittier offered a better venue.
“It’s a fabulous opportunity for us,” Barry said.
The preliminary plans also call for a designated classroom for The Center’s model railroad group.
Barry also credited Anderson for voluntarily organizing Monday’s meeting to allow north Brainerd residents to share their opinions before Northern Pines submits a request for proposal for the building to the Brainerd School District. The deadline for RFPs is Friday. As of Friday, Steve Lund, director of business services for the school district, said no RFPs had yet been submitted.
Anderson said Northern Pines Mental Health Center serves Brainerd, Little Falls, Long Prairie, Wadena and Staples. Its Brainerd facilities include one on Northwest Fifth Street, one on Maple Street and Our Place on Front Street.