As a teenager, Ahmed Hersi spent winter afternoons shooting hoops at Highwood Hills Recreation Center with other kids who lived in the large apartment buildings across the street.
“They would always go over there and spend that time and spend that energy,” Hersi, 23, said. “Today they don’t have a place to go.”
Hundreds of children in Hersi’s predominantly Somali neighborhood on St. Paul’s East Side spend winter days cooped up in apartments or running through halls in the complexes, said community members, who are pushing the city to reopen the Highwood Hills center.
It is one of 17 recreation centers St. Paul has closed or turned over to other organizations since the recession. Four of the buildings were removed, all in areas with high poverty levels, census data show.
Faced with tight budgets, city officials said they decided to strategically invest in improving programming and services at certain centers, like the newly renovated Palace Recreation Center that reopened two weeks ago in the West 7th neighborhood.
“We really needed to refocus and re-establish that the rec centers needed to be centers of the community life,” Mayor Chris Coleman said. “They need to be a lot more than a cinder block building.”
Newly elected City Council Member Jane Prince — who says this issue is her top priority — said she thinks the city’s efforts were well-intentioned. But parents and booster clubs in some of the wealthier neighborhoods were more organized and fought harder to retain their local center or make sure the new site manager offered opportunities for community use, she said.
Betsy Leach, director of the District 1 Community Council that represents much of the East Side, said the city’s plans overlook pockets of need in that area.
Where are St. Paul's rec centers disappearing?
St. Paul ran community services at 42 recreation centers before the recession. The city has since removed or stopped running operations at 17 of the centers as it shifted its services to a “quality over quantity” approach, officials said. Some community members said impoverished neighborhoods have been hurt by the changes.
Source: City of St. Paul & American Community Survey
“The way that they implemented those plans has been really unfair,” Leach said. “They weren’t looking at areas of poverty. They weren’t looking at areas where there are concentrations of people of color. They weren’t looking at areas where people didn’t have means of transportation.”
Recreation centers are a flash point as St. Paul focuses on racial equity and tries to move away from a complaint-based system, where communities who speak the loudest get the most attention.
At a recent presentation on equity, council members asked staff for a deeper analysis of how recreation services and spending aligns with community needs.
Prince said she realized the impact of the Highwood Hills center closure this fall when she was knocking on doors at Afton View Apartments, where Hersi lives, and found that hundreds of children in the area do not have a good place to hang out after school.
Battle Creek Recreation Center is about a 1.5 mile-walk from Highwood Hills. But a busy road and winter weather make it difficult for people to get there without a car, community members said.
“When you know you have 400 kids here who you know are housebound — because most of the moms don’t drive — we need to open it,” Prince said.
Prince’s frustration was evident as she discussed three recreation centers, Conway, Eastview and Margaret, where the city stopped offering programming.
“I frankly can’t understand how it was allowed to happen,” she said, noting the area has many parents who work multiple jobs and an “extremely acute” need for space for youth to hang out after school.
St. Paul removed the Margaret center and replaced it with bathrooms. It turned the Conway location over to soccer player Tony Sanneh’s nonprofit, which provides community programming. Eastview now houses a private boxing club and weightlifting gym. A sign posted on that former recreation center’s door says “Building closed to public.”
While the city made cuts to community centers, it found money for massive projects like the Saints stadium, said Council Member Dan Bostrom, who represents the northeast corner of the city where one recreation center was removed and another stopped offering city programming.
“If we can figure out how to take care of these big multimillion dollar deals … why is that more important than taking care of our local neighborhoods?” Bostrom said.
‘Quality over quantity’
Groups of teens hung out late into the evening Tuesday at St. Paul’s new recreation center and library in Arlington Hills. The modern building, which includes community rooms and a digital studio where kids can try out different technology, opened in 2014 in one of the city’s neediest areas.
It is a good example of how the city is shifting the way it runs recreation centers to focus on “quality over quantity,” Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm said.
The city used to run services at 42 recreation centers, which were expensive to maintain, Hahm said. Now it operates 25 centers and fills in some gaps by partnering with groups like Sanneh’s nonprofit. The city has also added community gathering spaces at libraries and created a mobile recreation program that provides equipment to communities that would not otherwise have access, including the Highwood Hills area, staff said.
A city plan developed in 2010 to transform parks and recreation services evaluated the condition of recreation centers, how close they were to other services and how much people used the buildings — that informed which buildings would be renovated or demolished. The plan aims to eventually cut the number of centers the city runs to 19. That would save St. Paul approximately $20 million over the next 20 years, city documents say, which could be channeled to staff, programming and services.
Many of the old rec center buildings were not great community assets, Mayor Chris Coleman said. That’s why the Palace center in the city’s working-class West 7th neighborhood was recently overhauled.
“It had a big gym and not much else happening there,” Coleman said. “I think the worst mistake we could have made is, well, we’ll keep the building but we’re not really going to do much there. Kids need so much more, particularly if they’re going to make that leap from poverty into the middle class.”
Hersi agrees kids need more. He just wants the city to offer that boost out of poverty for people in his neighborhood.