ST. CLOUD – A once beloved city park was in need of a major makeover.
Not far from St. Cloud’s downtown, the asphalt trails around Lake George were crumbling and weedy. The community pool? Closed. Paddle boats had fallen victim to city budget cuts. And the park where generations of residents learned to ice skate in the winter was drawing more criminals than families.
That was 13 years ago, before the Rotary Club of St. Cloud led a $3.5 million renovation of Eastman Park, transforming it back into a popular gathering place. Under blue skies on a recent June evening, an estimated 14,000 people staked out spots with lawn chairs and blankets for a free weekly concert. Swans and paddle boats scooted across the lake. People strolled along paver-covered paths around the lake.
“It brought back to life a park a lot of people were fond of,” said Troy Fritz, the club’s president. “That’s what fundamentally changed our club. We never looked back.”
After the Lake George project, the organization that, like many other Rotary Clubs, had focused on smaller raffles and fundraisers, turned its attention to helping transform the city — with hundreds of thousands of dollars and other financial support from local businesses. Members drummed up money for a house where police officers can do community outreach, helped open a resource center for homeless youth and, after looking at the city’s 15-year plan for Eastman Park, became a catalyst to complete all the projects in five years.
With the help of the Rotary, business donations and $2 million in local sales taxes, the city added pavers for a walking trail, new asphalt bike trails, fountains and fishing piers, and returned the paddle boats to Lake George.
“They set the bar really high in terms of collaboration and partnership,” said Mayor Dave Kleis, a former Rotary member. “They don’t slow down at all.”
The Rotary Club of St. Cloud, a volunteer service organization made up of CEOs and other business, nonprofit and community leaders, is one of three Rotary clubs in the area.
As its visibility has grown, so has the club’s membership, up from 95 members before the Lake George renovation to 139 today — bucking the national trend of dwindling interest in service organizations.
Thanks to Lake George weekly concerts, the club’s budget has risen to about $100,000 a year for programs, funded from beer and food sales from the concerts and the club’s $1.1 million endowment. Fritz said he estimates the club’s finances rank in the top 10 percent of Rotary clubs across the world.
“It’s changed dramatically,” Fritz said of the club’s mission.
As its budget grows, so has the community projects.
In 2017, the Rotary raised $75,000 to help St. Cloud Police open a new “community outpost,” demolishing a house and rebuilding one for police to host outreach events. Modeled after a program in Racine, Wis., the so-called COP house blends in with the residential neighborhood. Inside, officers and county human services staff have offices to help residents access services closer to home.
On a recent afternoon, officers in T-shirts and shorts played basketball with a group of children, many of whom were Somali-American, across the street from the COP house, which Rotary members volunteered to paint and do work on before it opened.
“We would never have been able to do that without the Rotary’s help,” Lt. Lori Ellering said.
Two miles away, the Rotary also put money and volunteer time into another community issue: youth homelessness.
After hearing that as many as 150 16- to 23-year-olds are homeless in St. Cloud each day, the Rotary led the charge to do something about it. The club is spending $150,000 over three years and teamed up with other local clubs — Granite Rotary, Great River Rotary and the St. Cloud Rotaract — to renovate a building and open the youth resource center, Pathways 4 Youth, in April.
“These projects get bigger because we have the money,” said Tim Wensman, a St. Cloud Rotary member and former Gold’n Plump executive who led the effort. “Usually Rotary clubs don’t do this kind of thing.”
The resource center isn’t an overnight shelter, but it provides a “one-stop shop” for a food shelf, a doctor, donated clothes, lockers and showers. Case workers from Catholic Charities and Stearns County moved their offices there to work alongside 40 trained volunteers and one full-time manager. So far, they’ve met with about a dozen people a day, including Shawnasee Smith, 22, who stopped by recently to pick up paper towels and groceries, holding the bags in one hand and her 4-month old son in the other as her 3- and 2-year-old sons played.
After being homeless last year, she is poised to be one of the center’s first success stories having just signed a lease on a house nearby. “They helped out really well,” she said.
More than $130,000 was also fundraised and donated to cover the center’s operation.
‘It’s changed dramatically’
That collaboration with police, parks and city leaders is unique, Fritz said.
“We try to solve some of the problems that keep them awake at night,” he said. “I think it’s a model for other communities.”
Once the club helped the city revamp Eastman Park and Lake George, it launched free summer concerts in 2011 to draw people there. They hoped to attract 1,000 residents. Instead, the weekly lakeside Summertime by George concerts took off, drawing an average of 10,000 people.
Before the first concert of the season this month, some residents had already set up chairs to claim a spot at 8:30 a.m.
By 6 p.m., the park was packed with a sea of foldable chairs as Sue DeChambeau joined thousands of residents listening to the band or mingling in a beer garden. The lifelong St. Cloud resident said the park’s transformation has drawn bigger festivities to the city — such as events for the Governor’s Fishing Opener in 2017 and Hockey Day Minnesota last January, an annual, statewide event put on by the Wild.
“There was nothing [here before],” said DeChambeau as she walked with her husband, Don. “St. Cloud has never really pulled off an event like this.”
The concerts have become a summer highlight for Todd Kuikka, his wife, Erika, and their 5-year-old daughter, who attend each year.
“St. Cloud does have challenges,” he said. “This offers the opportunity to come together.”
Next, the Rotary Club of St. Cloud is turning its focus to another city priority: revitalizing its long-ignored riverfront. The club funded about half of a $125,000 study to look at designs for a river walk trail to give pedestrians better access to the waterfront. City and Rotary club leaders hope the river walk could be built as soon as 2020.
“It’s a really unique relationship,” said Matt Glaesman, the city’s community development director. “It’s bringing some of those grand visions to reality.”