Residents of St. Paul's East Side may once again lose Highwood Hills Recreation Center, a central neighborhood gathering space for many East African families.
The closure of Highwood Hills Elementary School due to low enrollment would also mean the closure of the recreation center, which reopened in 2019 after falling victim to the Great Recession more than a decade before.
The elementary school is one of five in the district that could close due to enrollment challenges. School board members will vote on a plan in November that would close Highwood Hills, John A. Johnson, Jackson and Wellstone elementaries and LEAP High School.
Highwood Hills Recreation Center reopened in April 2019 to much fanfare after shuttering in 2008 — one of more than a dozen rec centers the city closed or handed off to other organizations as a result of the recession. The city's 2019 budget included $1 million for after-school programs and rec centers like Highwood Hills, and Mayor Melvin Carter championed the reopening as a sign of the city's commitment to youth and recreation.
The rec center offers a soccer field, two half-court basketball courts, a playground and Rec Check, a free after-school and summer program. In a statement Monday, Carter said the center "provides vital space for young people on our East Side."
"As our public schools re-envision access to high-quality learning opportunities, we look forward to working with our district and members of our community to continue supporting children and families," he said.
City Council Member Jane Prince, who represents the Highwood Hills neighborhood and spent years advocating for the rec center's reopening, wrote a letter Oct. 13 to Carter, St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard and her council colleagues highlighting the effect the center's closure would have on the East African community and young families living in nearby apartments.
The rec center and elementary school are in an area of concentrated poverty, Prince wrote, and are already "ill-served by public transit and public services."
"It is incumbent on the city of St. Paul — in the name of equity — to fight against the closure of this particular school and recreation center," she wrote.
Omar Syed, an East Side community organizer who ran for school board in 2019, said it would be a blow to the neighborhood to see the center close after just three years.
"The community uses the kids' program there, for playing basketball or soccer, or doing after-school homework there," Syed said. "That area is very, very, important for the community."
If Highwood Hills closes, the closest recreation center would be 3 miles away — a challenge for local families, many of whom do not have cars, to access, he said.
Syed, who owns the nearby Chili Time Coffee, said he wants to see more conversation or dialogue with the community.
"I'm very sad to see this gone in such a short time," he said.