Amin Omar’s heart was racing.
After years of organizing his neighbors and pleading with politicians, the father of five finally saw his dream realized: The city of St. Paul was reopening Highwood Hills Recreation Center, and his children — along with hundreds of other children in the neighborhood — would have a place to go.
“It’s not about the center,” said Omar, whose nonprofit organization Horn of Africa worked with the city and St. Paul Public Schools to reopen Highwood Hills. “It’s about us.”
At a ceremony Monday, Mayor Melvin Carter talked about the role that recreation centers play in St. Paul residents’ lives, including his own — the mayor grew up playing sports and attending after-school programs at the Martin Luther King Recreation Center. Carter’s 2019 budget includes $1 million for after-school programming and recreation centers, including Highwood Hills.
“There’s few things that I’ve gotten a chance to do as mayor that excite me more than this — the opportunity to say to all the families that live in this area, ‘You have a rec center. This is your rec center,’ ” Carter said.
The city stopped operating Highwood Hills in 2008, at a time when the parks department was cutting programs to save money. Though the facility in the lower level of Highwood Hills Elementary School remained open, the school district oversaw the space and it no longer had parks department staff or programs.
“It was really disheartening,” said Naima Farah, who grew up hanging out at Highwood Hills with her friends. “A lot of youth struggled to find a place.”
Residents of the predominantly Somali neighborhood, along with their elected officials, pushed the city to bring parks and recreation programs back to Highwood Hills. The major turning point came in August, when Carter announced he was allocating $200,000 in his 2019 budget for Highwood Hills.
“When we heard Mayor Carter give his budget speech saying that he was going to allocate resources for the center, I kind of looked at myself and looked side to side and said, ‘This is really going to happen,’ ” said Superintendent Joe Gothard.
On Monday, residents and elected officials were still giddy.
“It’s kind of funny to me that we’re here on April Fools’ Day, because we know this is not April Fools’,” said Council Member Jane Prince, who represents the Highwood Hills neighborhood and is up for re-election in November in a contested race. “It’s really going to happen.”
St. Paul Parks and Recreation staff will operate the center, at 2192 Londin Lane E., which will be open Monday through Thursday from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. The week’s schedule includes cooking classes, dodge ball, arts and crafts, whiffle ball and karaoke, among other activities.
Once the ribbon was cut and the rec center’s doors opened Monday afternoon, dozens of children and adults streamed inside to escape the wind and enjoy cookies. From a spot near the front door, Omar looked out onto a playground and empty field.
That’s his next goal. Omar wants soccer there, he said, and a running track.
“No more jails,” he said. “More parks.”