Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #121. First published in the St. Cloud Times online Aug. 5, 2017; in print Aug. 6

“The first lesson of history, and it may well be the last, is that you never know what is coming next.”

These words of the great historian G. M. Young come to mind as I think about the tempest stirred up by the St. Cloud school board’s decision to purchase the Minnesota School of Business building for the district’s administrative offices and welcome center, without more public notice or a public hearing.

Here is what unexpectedly “came next”: a well-located site, ready to be moved into and appropriately designed for both an administrative team and a place to welcome newcomers as they ready their children for school, becomes time-sensitively available at a bargain price. Nobody anticipated this.

Last year the school board said relocating the administration and welcome center to the current Tech building would be an option, but this was never explicitly promised. Yes, that was an impression of some, but not of everyone. The district could have been clearer, but at the time the alternative of the Minnesota School of Business was not even on the horizon.

The Minnesota School of Business building costs less than half what it would take to repurpose Tech for administration and welcome center — and such repurposing would deal with only a small portion of the total Tech complex.

The school board takes its fiduciary responsibility seriously. Spending $6 million instead of $12 million is being careful with taxpayers’ money — and those taxpayers are scattered throughout the 250 square miles of the district, including the Apollo attendance area, not just in the Tech neighborhood.

Moving administration now from Apollo gives additional time and possibly resources to begin making that space a 21st-century high school (the current Tech building won’t be vacated until the fall of 2019), and moving the welcome center will take it out of the commercial context of Midtown Center.

Here’s the main thing I want to say.

I believe the board was trying to do the right thing and made the right call. Given the sensitivities in the Tech neighborhood, a more open process would have been the prudent way to do it.

Moving forward, though, why in the world would we choose to waste time and energy mimicking the national dysfunction and finger-pointing and drawing lines in the sand that has our society in such disarray?

The school board has made a decision that can be considered both controversial and responsible. This can hardly be a surprise. In a democracy, not everybody is happy.

Where is the imagination, the creativity, the visioning that this community is capable of and has shown in the past?

There are two full years until the new Tech is ready, 24 months for gathering and discussing fresh ideas about use of the Tech complex that will serve the community well.


Why do I think we have what it takes to have this conversation, civilly and productively?

Because in my time in this area I have seen at least two instances that have given focus and prominence to what is best about us — the Paramount Center for the Arts and Summertime by George.

The Paramount was slated for demolition, but folks rallied round, and it was not only preserved but enhanced, and its program has been broadened and deepened.

And who, before it happened, would have imagined crowds of 10,000 or more at Lake George on summer Wednesdays? First there had to be the revitalizing of the lake, but that only set the stage. You never know what is coming next.

The school board is not in the real estate business. It’s in the education business, and its basic responsibility is to students. But it owns the Tech complex and has an obligation to the neighbors in the area and to the community as a whole to see that something good comes of it.

My suggestion: The school board should establish a process for the widest possible canvassing during the next two years of community ideas, plans, and identification of all resources for repurposing Tech, with special (but not exclusive) attention to the views of people in the neighborhood.

The school board can be held to the commitment, stated by its chair, Al Dahlgren: “We want it to be something good for the neighborhood, good for the city — a vibrant and exciting solution.”

Once that solution is found, if a nonprofit or a governmental agency or some combination of those is ready to carry it out, the school board should sell the complex to them for $1.

You never know what is coming next. But if we put our minds and hearts toward creating something together, we increase the odds that what comes next for the Tech site will serve us well for the next 100 years.

Meanwhile, let’s cool the rhetoric.