Column: Gathering space is important for a new community center in Bloomington

By Larry Granger and Vonda Kelly

Guest columnists


For the fourth time in its history, Bloomington is having a discussion about creating a building or set of buildings that would provide a variety of spaces for residents of all ages to gather for various social, educational, recreational and artistic programming, sponsored by the city of Bloomington and various organizations.

This discussion first occurred in the 1916-17 time period when the community debated about forming a public school system for Bloomington, in which the community would have its own high school and by which several one room schools — built from the mid-1860s and beyond, which had served grades 1-8 — would be consolidated.

In 1917 the decision was made to officially form the Bloomington Public School System and to construct the consolidated school at the Penn Avenue site. When the building opened in 1918, it provided a gathering place for the full community of the Bloomington Township to come together in usage of the school facilities, including the auditorium, gymnasium and lunchroom, as well as other indoor and outdoor spaces.

It was at the Bloomington Consolidated School building that the joint township-school library came about in the 1920s and where the annual meeting of Bloomington Township had to be held once the community began growing after World War II. Additional high schools were built in 1957, 1964 and 1970 (Lincoln, Kennedy and Jefferson), that provided additional community space.

In the late 1960s, preliminary planning was done for a Bloomington Civic Center at 98th Street and France Avenue, which included a possible joint art center in combination with Normandale Community College, with a 5,000 seat auditorium, several museum spaces and an ice arena. Also included were a new city hall. The only facility resulting from this plan was the Bloomington Ice Garden.

City hall expanded at its 1964 site. A city library created in the 1950s became a county library in the 1960s. A demand for an expanded art center beyond the limited facility in a one-time grocery store located next to the historic 1892 Town Hall led to a successful bond election for the creation of the Bloomington Art Center in combination with a new city hall and police station, which opened in 2003.

The 1982 acquisition of the former Creekside Elementary School building by the city of Bloomington and its conversion into primarily a senior center paralleled the desire for a gathering space to bring folks together. Before long, however, the facility was bursting at the seams, which has led to the formation of the current community center study committee with the charge of sorting out the unmet social, recreational, gathering and artistic needs of an ever changing Bloomington.

New residents do not share a common experience of moving to town at a similar time and family members sharing common experiences in schools, athletic leagues and churches. Therefore, creating a sense of community among the population without common “living in town” experiences calls for an ongoing educational and reminder process. What better place than a new community center where a gathering space at least two or three times larger than the Minnesota Valley Room at Creekside Center could be surrounded by a series of history alcoves and rooms devoted to telling the major elements of Bloomington’s unique history with its location on the Minnesota River, such as a school system with a student population that exploded with the growth in population, but later decreased with changes in demographics as the population aged.

Memories were created in the 20-plus Bloomington school buildings and the school system produced graduates who have a national presence, such as Pete Docter who has won two Oscars for animation; Kent Hrbek, of the World Series champion Minnesota Twins, and the many “Bloomingtonites” playing in the National Hockey League. The major athletic presence in Bloomington from beginner athletes to the days of “Big League and Booming” being Bloomington’s slogan when it hosted four major league sports teams, is a community shaper. Bloomington’s wonderful outdoor spaces in its park system, Three River Park District and the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge all could be represented with exhibits and interpreters.

The change from Bloomington as a rural community of more than 300 farms to the largest hospitality center in Minnesota, as well as the home of the Mall of America, comprises never-ending stories to be told, for prospective new residents and business owners, as well as visitors. A community center would be one place where an indoor tour of Bloomington could be told and shown. Flexibility in the gathering space and adjacent areas would provide additional exhibition and teaching space for the art center.

Bloomington leaders should determine if the city needs a primarily expanded recreation center as is found in other communities or to continue on the path of looking for a community gathering space where many facets of community life can be improved and a sense of community reinforced.

And this thinking should be shared with the Bloomington School District, which is looking ahead after completing its first 100 years. Will Bloomington become a one high school community like Edina and Eden Prairie, and what type of long term joint city-school facilities might be possible? It’s unlikely that there will be a series of community centers built so there will likely be one chance to do it right. So keep the thinking going broad, deep, cooperatively and creatively.

Granger is the president and Kelly is the executive director of the Bloomington Historical Society.