One of Lucy Elliott’s life mottos is “Make Do,” a phrase her parents often used and one that sums up her years-in-the-making effort to create a children’s activity center in south Minneapolis.
The retired educator has collected old materials for crafts and projects, as well as books and toys she’s used in her jobs and raising her own family, and set them up in a renovated auto garage at E. 34th Street and 42nd Avenue S. She’s calling it Belle’s Tool Box, an homage to her mother.
Once Belle’s opens in September, Elliott said she hopes parents will bring their kids there and engage with them in different crafts and activities. She’ll encourage a phone-free policy in hopes that parents will follow their kids’ leads and focus on whatever book, toy or project catches their eye.
Elliott said her family’s basement, garage and backyard were formative spaces as a child, where she was always working on a project and learning new skills. She said she hopes that Belle’s can be that kind of place for kids who don’t have a basement or garage, pointing to apartments across the street.
Melanie Majors, executive director of the Longfellow Community Council, said Belle’s is unlike anything else in the community and represents an effective adaptation of an unused space.
“We just hope Lucy is incredibly successful with her project,” Majors said. “It’s certainly a welcome addition to the community.”
The idea for a project space had been fermenting in Elliott’s mind for years. After she and her husband, Mark, moved to Minneapolis from a Chicago suburb in 2014, they decided to make it happen.
They found and purchased a 1,000-square-foot building on a corner lot that once housed Keller’s Auto Service, and began the renovation.
“I didn’t have anything else going — I had to do something to stay out of [my family’s] hair,” she joked. “It was kind of a now or never, or we were going to have to get rid of all of this stuff.”
Over the years, Elliott has directed English as a Second Language programs for kids and families, child development programs for teenage parents and their kids, and an education program at a history museum — jobs that became the sources for many of the materials she has collected.
The positions she held were in low-budget environments where she had to find her own materials and, yes, make do.
“That’s all you need with kids,” Elliott said. “They really don’t care that things cost money, they just want to have a good time.”
A stroll through Belle’s shows signs of her “make do” mind-set. Many objects were reclaimed from other things: a gate dividing the two main rooms came from an old wooden pallet, and half a trellis is a lawn mower handle partly covered in plants.
Most of the wood fencing used for the loft inside and around the outside garden was reclaimed from alleys and organizations that focus on reusable items. Elliott bought the concrete tiles in the driveway from the city. They were seen most recently on the Nicollet Mall downtown.
Elliott hopes the focus on reuse and creativity will inspire visitors. “Rather than talk about it, we’re trying to demonstrate that you can do some fun stuff,” she said.
Nugget in the neighborhood
She’s worked with a couple of contract workers to renovate the lot, clearing out asphalt that was 6 inches deep in some areas and building a gazebo where an old gas pump once sat. She plans to designate the gazebo as an overflow project space or a quiet area for families to use.
People walking by the bright blue garage have been curious, she said.
“You wouldn’t believe the number of people that have asked if this is going to be a microbrewery,” she said. “We really like microbreweries, but I think we maybe have enough.”
Majors said that Belle’s will offer a wide range of activities for families, unlike the more focused programming typically provided for kids at schools, churches, parks and libraries. She said she likes the fact that Belle’s is easily accessible for nearby residents.
Elliott wants to keep regular hours for Belle’s, and she hopes to partner with groups such as the Minneapolis Toy Library, local high schools and a nearby teen parent program.
She plans to charge a suggested fee of $3 to $5, which she said could be offset if patrons take a bus, walk, or ride a bike to Belle’s. If the model works, she said she hopes to make it a nonprofit in a couple of years.
She is promoting a safe, respectful environment.
“That’s why we’re here, I think,” she said. “To try in our own way to have this little nugget in the neighborhood where we just want to take care of each other.”