A carpenter by trade, Gary Peterson has spent the better part of his career building things. But only later in life has he turned to building a community.
Peterson, mayor of Columbia Heights for the past 12 years, is the driving force behind the Columbia Heights Community Heritage Tower, the third installment of a three-part public art series to promote community and peace in a changing city.
The mayor and his city are currently fundraising for the project that Peterson hopes will be unveiled in May.
Peterson and other public officials say the project can bring people together and promote the right message for a city that has changed dramatically in demographic terms over the past decade and is taking strides to be a stronger community.
About 87 percent of Columbia Heights residents identified themselves as white in 2000, according to the U.S. Census. That number stood at less than 70 percent in 2010.
“While some people are concerned about changing demographics, this community celebrates that,” said Police Chief Scott Nadeau.
Nadeau, who has served as chief for about five years, said unity is very important in a changing community.
The Heritage Tower is the third piece of Peterson’s decadelong dream to build public monuments for peace in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Peterson tried to get city funding for such monuments in the late 1990s but he said the momentum wasn’t there. After 9/11, Peterson returned to his vision.
“It kinda got a little more important to me, so I set off raising funds and doing it ourselves,” he said.
When the project began, Peterson said the monuments had been taken as antiwar, which he said is a misconception.
“It was just time to make a statement that peace is what we strive for. That’s for darn sure,” he said.
The city finished its first project, a Clock Tower of Peace at the corner of 40th and Central Avenues, in 2006. The tower has a time capsule inside with messages of peace from current citizens for future residents, including one left by a grandmother for her grandchildren. The city raised about $42,000 for the clock tower, Peterson said.
The city then built a bronze Police and Fire Tribute statue in 2009, outside the then-recently opened police and fire station. For that project, Peterson said the city raised more than $50,000.
For its last piece, the city will build the Heritage Tower, a four-sided structure in the middle of the roundabout at 39th Avenue and Jefferson Street near City Hall. Peterson said the city needs to raise about $40,000 for the project, which includes a legacy garden across the street and possibly a time capsule beneath the tower.
He said the spot was always meant for some public art, but it never was decided what kind.
“I’m not one for a lot of strange things that need explanation,” he said.
On the tower will be four words, one on each side: diversity, recreation, education and labor. They’ll represent what Peterson said are some of the core values of the city.
Students from the Columbia Heights High School will make drawings to represent each of the words that then will be sandblasted into the sides of the stone.
Jesse Davies, the city’s public works administrative assistant, is coordinating the work between students and the tower’s manufacturer, American Artstone Co. of New Ulm, Minn. He said these projects have been a way to rejuvenate the city.
“The housing is getting older, the infrastructure is getting older,” Davies said. “When we can do things like this, it can help the community get some fresh air.”
In a city founded by German, Polish and Scandinavian immigrants, Peterson said he wants to make sure new immigrants still feel welcome.
Nadeau said the police and the city as a whole have taken steps to get people of different backgrounds together — efforts such as holding an interfaith dialogue between members of a local mosque and a Christian church.
In larger cities, the project might be considered modest, but for a town of less than 20,000, it’s symbolic — and important — to the residents.
“That ‘welcoming community,’ it does get beyond the rhetoric and the sound bites,” Nadeau said. “It’s something people legitimately value.”
In mid-February, the city also held a Friday-night fish fry to raise funds at Murzyn Hall, the city’s local event center.
Peterson said the event was a success and helped the city get closer to its fundraising goal.
Earlier that week, former City Council member and city resident Kenneth Hentges told Peterson that he would donate $10,000 to the project. In recognition of that gift, the city will name the planned garden across the street from the roundabout Hentges Legacy Garden, in honor of his late wife.
With Hentges’ donation, Peterson said, the city is about halfway to its $40,000 mark and is hopeful it can reach its goal.
“It makes a big leap to getting to our goal,” the mayor said.
The city also will hold a pancake breakfast fundraiser in April. The mayor said the events don’t completely solve the financial issue, but they’re beneficial and are another way to get community members working together.
“Every little bit helps,” he said.
Nadeau said the efforts of his officers to get into the community, the monuments and the public’s positive reaction are all tied together in the city’s character.
“I see all this as interconnected,” he said.
Kevin Burbach is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.