Ober Community Center, a cog of St. Paul’s historic Rondo neighborhood for decades, will close at the end of the year.
Union Gospel Mission Twin Cities, which owns and operates Ober, is shifting resources to its core mission of serving people who are homeless and suffering from addiction and mental illness, said Dan Furry, communications and marketing manager.
“Ober in its day was really popular and was the hub of a lot of activity when community centers played an important role in family life,” Furry said. “But, over the past two or three decades, the culture has changed a little bit and the numbers haven’t been great. We came to the conclusion that residential programming and recovery programming is really our core strength, and has been since our beginning in 1902.”
Floyd Smaller said generations of young people were molded by the years spent playing football, basketball, boxing and wrestling at Ober. Smaller himself gravitated to the Ober Boys Club after his family moved to St. Paul from Arkansas in 1943. His football, track and basketball coaching career spanned decades at Mechanic Arts and Central high schools.
“I’m stunned. Shocked. Angry,” Smaller said about Ober’s closing. “I started going down there at 10 years old. It was my first initiation into the athletic world. They’ve always been there. I don’t know why they’d close.”
It’s not the cost, Furry said. Rather, he said, the organization wants to better focus on serving homeless individuals and families, many of whom are ravaged by mental illness and addiction. Union Gospel Mission recently added a mental health clinic to the basement of its men’s campus. Optometry and chiropractic care also have been added to the mission’s homeless services, which include life skills, job search training and occupational programs.
The mission is also beefing up services for children who share the trauma of their homeless mothers, Furry said. Money will be shifted from Ober’s after-school and summer programs for neighborhood middle school and high school students to hire five new staff members to work with young children, including a child therapist, a child development teacher and a mental health assistant.
The city of St. Paul runs 26 community centers, including a sparkling new Frogtown facility a mile away. Still, Furry and program director Ed Irwin acknowledge Ober’s closing is a blow for the neighborhood — beyond the eight Ober staff members losing their jobs at the end of the year. Staff members are working to connect young people with staff and services at other centers and programs, Irwin said.
“We’re losing that sense of legacy and connection,” he said, adding that older neighbors often pop by just to peek inside the gym where they once played. “It’s a big sense of loss for me.”
Built in 1940 at 376 Western Av. with money donated by an executive from 3M Co., Ober Boys Club and its gymnasium, swimming pool, athletic fields and summer camps were “free for anybody to come,” Smaller said. Children of all ethnicities learned to swim, paddle canoes, row boats, do archery — even horseback riding, he said. Coaches and mentors like Otis Smith, Jim Robinson and Jay Milsap “taught us so many different things. Important things,” Smaller said.
“Ober made all the difference in the world for me, and for so many other kids over the years, one generation after another.”
Ober Community Center now serves about 400 young people a year, through after-school and summer programs such as Homework Help and Treehouse, a faith-based outreach program, said Irwin, program director for the past 3½ years. In addition, Ober has a robotics program and offers photojournalism, filmmaking and audio recording. While the swimming pool was filled in years ago, open gym is offered on Wednesday and Friday evenings.
What Ober and its leaky roof and balky boiler lack in fancy facilities it made up for in personal, one-on-one connections with area young people, Irwin said.
“Young people need safe places to be. This was one, a place where they could engage one to one with mentors, positive adults, make a relationship,” he said. “Our programming was not based on how many people come through the door, but to be a surrogate family member, a friend. And I don’t see that happening a lot in the community.”
An open house for people who want to say goodbye to Ober is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 13, starting at 5:30 p.m.