Deep inside the monstrous brick barn that a year ago was home only to a dirt floor and cobwebs, 13-year-old Jahbri Jones scrambled for footing against a rock wall while he hung suspended 25 feet in the air.
On the ground, 15-year-old Johnny Her, a Boy Scout from north Minneapolis, supported Jones -- not just by holding tight the rope that kept him aloft.
"You can do it! You can do it!" Her shouted to the boy in the air. "Carefully! Climb it!"
This is Base Camp, a groundbreaking attempt to attract urban youth who otherwise might not give the Scouts a second thought.
The Boy Scouts of America Northern Star Council on Saturday will celebrate the grand opening of the first urban Base Camp of its kind in the country at Fort Snelling to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the organization.
The 27,000-square-foot building overlooking Hwys. 55 and 5 features indoor and outdoor climbing walls -- including rock faces modeled after those at Taylors Falls, high ropes, an archery range, an amphitheater and a NASA space shuttle simulator.
But it's not just home to any kid's wildest dream. It's also home to the Northern Star Council's initiative to bring the outdoors to urban kids, and ideally, continue to diversify the ranks of the Scouts. As the project launches, the whole Boy Scouts of America organization will be watching.
"It's not just simply climbing a wall," said Base Camp Program director Jonathan Jones. "It's the interaction they'll have with their peers, the leaders they're going to be working with, I feel is going to be life-changing."
Carolina Pflaumer, Latino outreach executive for the Northern Star Council, said that in the past three years, the number of Boy Scouts who are Latino has grown from 60 to 519. Base Camp is a part of that initiative, not only for Latino children, but also for blacks and children of other cultures. It's a form of showing how committed the Northern Star Council is to diversity, she said.
'This bridges the gap'
"It really opens up a world of possibilities, particularly to the urban population in a very concrete way," she said. "We want to take urban kids to the outdoors, but let's face it, if they want to take you to a scouting activity three hours away with a culture barrier, there will be a challenge. This bridges the gap and says, 'Come check us out. Learn what we're about.'"
Back on the climbing wall, after making it nearly to the top, Jones gave the signal and was lowered. The sweat-drenched kid took off his helmet and rubbed his wrists as his uncle chuckled.
"So what do you think?" Jonathan Jones asked. "Still think Scouts are kind of boring?"
Jahbri shrugged, gave a lopsided grin and took off for the space shuttle.
The building, which opened in 1907 as the Fort Snelling Cavalry Drill Hall, was used by mounted soldiers for training and drills.
It was purchased by the Scouts in fall 2008 for $4.2 million, along with a nearby strip of land, and renovated at a cost of about $4.7 million. Groundbreaking was in June 2008. Jones said that although the building is owned by the Northern Star Council, it will be available for use by school, church and other groups.
Outside the building on Wednesday, brightly colored vans read "Scouting: Good for Life" in languages including Spanish, Somali and Hmong. Inside, a few of the kids, including boys from Troop 100, the nation's first Hmong Boy Scout troop, clambered across the climbing wall, giving it a test run before Friday's Northern Star Council 100th annual meeting and Saturday's grand opening for the public.
As they climbed, Dave Moore of Minneapolis watched. He's been a member of scouting for more than 50 years and started Troop 100, which now numbers 80 Hmong boys. He has been inspired, he said, by watching the respect and friendship his troop members show one another and other kids they might not typically associate with were it not for scouting. It's a lesson many adults could learn from, he said, adding that "this adult has learned a lot."
'Just seeing that glimmer'
Boy Scout Idrees Jones, 11, called his rock-climbing experience "pretty terrifying, pretty cool, pretty high."
"You'll get used to it later on," he said.
Then the kids took off for a space shuttle simulator, where they split into teams of pilots and mission control personnel.
As they shouted commands and prepared to launch, it was clear they weren't thinking about the Scouts' serious intention of encouraging diversity in the organization. They were just having fun, accomplishing something new. That's the plan.
"Just seeing that glimmer in the eye, like what teachers look for in the classroom, that says, I've achieved this. I did it," Jonathan Jones said. "That's what this is all about."
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921