The League of Minnesota Cities honored the community for going outside the general fund to get a play area built.
In Columbia Heights, a community without the economic muscle to build a community center, it took a village to raise a gymnasium for kids.
"We have limited dollars and we know it, but we also knew that the kids in our community have needed a gym for over 20 years," city manager Walt Fehst said. "We had to do something."
It wasn't just what Columbia Heights did, but the way it went about building an $8 million public gymnasium that earned it one of the League of Minnesota Cities' 2010 City of Excellence awards.
Scrambling for resources after sustaining cuts in government aid and dwindling revenues, Columbia Heights partnered with its school district, Anoka County and local businesses to build a second gymnasium on the high school property. It was an achievement few dreamed possible a few years ago.
"It was about a community coming together for kids," said Columbia Heights School Superintendent Kathy Kelly. "It really was a stroke of brilliance on the part of the City Council and mayor to have these units of government working together."
For years, city officials studied the possibility of building a community center. But plans quickly deflated with the mention of the projected $25 million price tag, Fehst said.
The cost of not doing anything seemed even more dramatic.
"There was nothing available for the youth in town," Fehst said. "At any one time, you can find 150 kids playing at our new gym. But where could those kids go before the gym was built?"
Grant opportunities seemed scarce -- until the city began collaborating with the school board, the county and private businesses, such as Bobby & Steve's Auto World, Fehst said. If a community center wasn't economically feasible, some kind of exercise facility could be built.
"But it doesn't happen just like that, and it doesn't happen everywhere," said Don Reeder, public affairs manager for the League of Minnesota Cities.
"Columbia Heights found a way to preserve essential services that might be offered on a more limited basis. The city was proactive and innovative in its collaborations."
The gymnasium opened last year.
Six cities were honored
Columbia Heights was one of six cities honored recently by the league.
The others were Annandale, Maple Lake and Howard Lake, for their wastewater treatment facility project; Minnetonka, for the funding of a $20 million expansion of Hwy. 169 into the Opus II Business Park, and Cottage Grove for producing a cable TV segment called "Dirty Jobs."
That show is hosted by two city employees who roll up their sleeves with people they interview, gaining hands-on experience doing jobs like trimming trees, performing emergency rescues on ice and water or preparing athletic fields for public use.
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419