Sam Schultz found a home among the old pool tables and repurposed restaurant booths at the Element, a teen center in Coon Rapids. He remembers decorating a float for the July 4th parade, watching movies on a big screen and planning holiday dance parties with other kids.
“It was a big part of my life,” said Schultz, now a high school senior. “Someone like me, who had no friends, came to this place and would meet all these different kids of every different background.”
But after years of financial struggles, the Element folded last summer — and it’s not alone. The doors are gradually closing at some city-run teen centers, once a ubiquitous part of the Twin Cities suburban landscape, because of funding challenges or declining attendance.
Coon Rapids and Burnsville shut down or repurposed their teen centers, while the future of Apple Valley’s facility remains in limbo. Eagan’s center closed in 2009. And staffers at Maple Grove’s long-popular teen center say fewer teens are showing up.
Experts on adolescence and staffers at other centers say the trend is a loss for suburban youth, especially those from poorer families and those not involved in school extracurriculars.
“They do need spaces to just hang out and have relationship and connections with peers but also with adults,” said Deborah Moore, director of the University of Minnesota Youth Work Learning Lab.
But city officials say the hubs can be challenging to staff and keep going. Others wonder if they’re even relevant to today’s young people, who sometimes prefer texting, social media and online friends to the flesh-and-blood kind, and who are often heavily scheduled.
“I’ve noticed attendance has really gone down,” said Barry Bernstein, Apple Valley parks and recreation director. “When I see trends like that, it begs the question: Are we providing what the youth of today want?”
Closing up shop
Teen centers funded by cities — rather than a church or nonprofit — are often run through parks and recreation departments. Many got their start in the late 1990s through the mid-2000s as part of a community center space, while others stand alone.
Amid the donated couches and rope lighting, most centers offer a mix of structured and nonstructured activities. Some have a youth board so teens can make decisions about how the place runs, providing real-world skills.
Some centers remain vital, chalking up thousands of visits per year. Maple Grove’s center had 9,730 youth visits in 2017, the Zone in Fridley had 7,340 visits during the 2016-17 school year, and Enigma in Shakopee, which opened a new facility this fall, counted 4,395 visits from September to December, staff said.
Trying new things to keep kids interested is key, said Aimee Peterson, superintendent of recreation in Maple Grove. These days, the center plans more “free, random events” rather than regularly occurring activities that cost money. But it’s hard to know what teens want to do, she said.
“Teens grow out of us,” Peterson said. “You have to always be trying to get the word out to the next group.”
Teen centers struggle for many reasons, staff members said.
The Coon Rapids center closed in June 2017. The outdated building and ongoing financial woes — the city provided its entire $20,000 budget after the school district bowed out of a partnership — ended things, said Ryan Gunderson, Coon Rapids’ recreation coordinator.
Difficulty finding quality staffers to work the three-hour shifts also contributed, Gunderson said.
Schultz, who attended the center almost daily from sixth grade through junior year, said passionate teens tried to fight the closing for years by speaking at City Council meetings.
After 14 years, the Garage in Burnsville was repurposed from a drop-in teen center focused on music to a nonprofit performance venue and music school in 2015. The middle schools now host the after school academic programs the Garage had offered.
“Of course that was a huge loss to [teens on the board],” said Julie Dorshak, Burnsville’s recreation and community services manager. “How could it not be? It had become their place.”
The city didn’t want to run the Garage anymore, in part due to expense. Relying on grants to fund it wasn’t sustainable, Dorshak said.
Grants for teen programs are harder to get now, staff from several centers said. State funding for youth programs decreased by $6 million between 2003 and 2009 and has been zeroed out since, said Kari Denissen Cunnien, executive director of Ignite Afterschool, a network of after-school programs. Funding from large metro-area philanthropic organizations has also dwindled or ceased, she said.
“We need to make sure that people know [youth programming] is not an extra,” Denissen Cunnien said. “It’s really actually quite critical for young people’s success.”
‘Having a place’
In Apple Valley, the City Council is weighing whether to close its teen center, which debuted 20 years ago after passage of a bond referendum. City staff recommended closing it at a January meeting.
After a strong start in the late 1990s, the center’s numbers have declined. Youth spent 15,000 hours there in 2013, compared with fewer than 5,000 hours in 2016, according to a city memo.
Location could be a factor, city staff said, since getting there requires a ride or walking across multilane highways. And it sits outside a residential area, so neighborhood kids don’t gather nearby.
Proximity to places where kids already congregate, like a school, helps Fridley’s teen center thrive, said Cleveland McCoy, program supervisor at the Zone in Fridley.
McCoy said teen centers play an important role in reducing adolescent crime, since the prime time for mischief is between 3 and 6 p.m., when the centers operate.
Keeping kids coming requires maintaining the interest of a few well-liked youth, he said, who influence others.
In Apple Valley, some teens said that element is missing. “I’ve been [to the center] a couple times, but it’s been a while,” said Amira McLendon, 17, who attends Apple Valley’s School of Environmental Studies. “I don’t have a reason to go, because none of my friends talk about it.”
The city is experimenting with a teen room at its Redwood Center to provide a different option for adolescents. But on two recent afternoons, no one showed up.
Marcie Padgett, a recreation supervisor for the city, recalls the teen center’s heyday, when kids flocked there to play games and make crafts. She wants to see that energy again, she said.
“We don’t want to close it, but we’re still trying to figure things out,” Padgett said. “We just want them to have a place.”