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On the corner of Rice Street and Lawson Avenue in St. Paul, dozens gathered Tuesday to celebrate the construction of the North End Community Center, a years-in-the-making project for a neighborhood where residents once told city officials they felt forgotten.

"I feel like as we're digging here today, what we're really doing is putting a heart — a big heart — in the middle of the North End," City Council President Amy Brendmoen said in front of the half-built recreation center, which is set to open in late 2024.

The 25,000-square-foot community center will include a gym, dance and fitness rooms, teaching kitchen and more community gathering spaces. A turf field, courts for badminton and sepak takraw (a southeast Asian sport described as "kick volleyball"), and picnic areas will be added to the surrounding 6-acre park. The site will include a geothermal heating and cooling system, as well as energy produced by solar panels on the roof.

Brendmoen, who represents the area, has for years pushed for more investment in the North End, home to some of St. Paul's youngest, poorest and newest residents. Nearly a third of the neighborhood's population was born outside the United States.

In 2017, officials started trying to piece together the $29.8 million needed for the project: $4 million came from the city's capital improvement budget, and another $13.1 million from city sales tax bonds. The Legislature allocated $6 million, and another $4 million was approved by Congress.

"We don't usually fund neighborhood community centers. … But what really makes the community thrive is that center — that community center where all ages can come and be together and learn about things and have a place to play," said state Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, who was joined by a handful of other local and state elected leaders who supported the project.

The building was designed by Snow Kreilich Architects, which also designed CHS Field in downtown St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood. Construction began in the spring.

The North End Community Center will replace Rice Recreation Center, located at Wellstone Elementary. The city has described the existing space as small, out of date and hard to find.

Children attending the Rice Rec Check after-school program signed their names on a rafter and watched as a crane lifted it into place.

"Welcome to your rec center," Mayor Melvin Carter said to the kids. "Do you like it?"

In response came a loud cheer: "Yes!"

But as officials continued thanking all those involved in the project, attention from some of the audience's youngest members started to dwindle. A few sat down at the construction site and began drawing in the dirt.

"I do love this setting here. It's pretty cool," Brendmoen said, jokingly adding: "It shows you we need a place to play."