BACKUS COMMUNITY CENTER
Located in the heart of International Falls, two landmark buildings stand the test of time and are testimony to representing the true meaning of community. The Alexander Baker (AB) School Building built in 1912 (38,472 sq. ft), and the E.W. Backus Junior High School Building (72,801 sq. ft.) built in 1936 were connected on the same site and served thousands of school children until they were closed by the district in 1991. The Backus building features a unique Art Deco style and has a 1,000-seat auditorium which has served as the main community gathering place for meetings, school programs, concerts, plays, and recreation for decades. The Backus building continued to be used to support a variety of functions after it no longer served as a school and a Facilities Study was conducted in 1996 followed by a Re-use Study in 2001 as community members struggled to find a way to keep both buildings viable. The fate of the buildings remained in question until in 2002 a small and committed group of community volunteers took ownership of the buildings and formed the Citizens for Backus/AB.
This group reached out to the City of International Falls, Koochiching County, the Otto Bremer Foundation, and others to support their vision of a vital community center that housed a variety of tenants and provided a gathering place for events. The organization developed a long-range plan that focused on three major capital improvement projects for the Backus Building including a roof replacement, a commercial kitchen/dining room, and a third-floor renovation including an elevator. A fourth capital improvement project focused on the development of the AB Building into a mixed-use of office/social services and residential space.
Progress. The first major undertaking was to replace the roof(s) of the entire complex in several phases. In 2005 the auditorium/gym was completed and in 2007 the art room roof was completed. Replacement of the main roofs for both buildings was a major undertaking and started with fundraising effort that raised $275,000 in just six months. In 2008 a total of 28,000 square feet of new roof was installed making the entire complex leak-free for the first time in almost 20 years.
In November 2009, after several years of planning the next project began with the installation of a fully-licensed, modern commercial kitchen and the renovation of the dining area. This will allow the facility to offer expanded food offerings at various events and serve noon meals to the St. Thomas School with the additional bonus of providing a more sustainable revenue stream for the complex's future. Completion of this project is scheduled for February, 2010.
After fourteen months of planning, the last major project for Backus - the third-floor renovation and elevator installation will begin this month. Two counseling agencies - Rational Alternatives and Northland Counseling - have signed multi-year leases for modern office space on the third floor. As part of this plan an elevator will be constructed which will make the entire building accessible for the first time. With support of Koochiching County in the issuance of bonds and participation with local financial institutions, $716,000 in financing was secured for this project. An April, 2010 completion date has been set. Much of the work on these projects will be done by local contractors, many of whom attended the schools growing up in International Falls.
For those in the community who have worked tirelessly to save these buildings and then to see the realization of these efforts transform into projects that will lead to the long-term viability of these structures, it goes well beyond a labor of love.
"One of the most gratifying things I hear from our long-time Board members is 'our dreams are finally coming true'", said Ward Merrill, Executive Director of the Backus Community Center. "These are the people that had the courage and persistence to step forward and do the hard work to save Backus/AB when it perhaps wasn't the popular thing to do."
For additional information, visit the Backus/AB website - www.backusab.org.