Union Gospel Mission is quietly selling its bucolic 17-acre campus in Shoreview after 90 years of ownership to a possible charter school, according to city documents.
Union Gospel officials said the suburban property on the shores of Snail Lake, once used as a summer camp for needy kids and as a residential treatment facility for men dealing with addiction, falls outside the group’s current mission.
“It’s been underutilized,” said Chuck Semrow, the charity’s vice president of development, marketing and communications.
Union Gospel Mission plans to fold the $11.5 million asking price back into its work, but Semrow said the charity remains “financially sound.”
“We are not in crisis. We have been blessed with donors,” he said.
Union Gospel Mission, based in St. Paul, reported an operating budget of $14.6 million in 2018. It runs a homeless shelter and addiction treatment center for men, a residence for homeless women and children, a child care center, job training and a meals program, all in downtown St. Paul.
Union Gospel officials declined to identify the buyers but said they have a signed purchase agreement and expect to close the deal in September.
“We are pleased the desired buyers align with our mission and values,” Semrow said.
According to the minutes of the Shoreview City Council’s workshop July 20, the new owners are interested in opening a new charter school.
The property on Hwy. 96 is zoned for planned unit development, meaning a new owner will need the city’s approval before operating any new program there, said Shoreview City Planner Kathleen Castle. It includes several buildings totaling 40,000 square feet, according to the real estate listing.
Castle declined to name the prospective buyer, saying no application had been filed with the city. She said an architect and a civil engineering firm were working on plans.
Castle described the property as “gorgeous” with mature oak trees and “great views of the lake.”
It also has an intriguing history. The site was originally known as Paradise Park, a dance hall, roadhouse and bootleg liquor operation associated with the infamous Kate “Ma” Barker, according to the charity’s historical account.
Union Gospel Mission snapped up the property when it turned up on the delinquent-tax roles. The St. Paul evangelistic and social service organization, established in 1902, had become concerned about the growing number of at-risk youth and started looking into building a children’s camp. One of the mission’s early leaders, Peter MacFarlane, borrowed against his personal life insurance policy to make the down payment on the property.
The first groups of young campers slept in the dance hall. By 1932 a lodge was built and campers enjoyed summer activities between morning and evening chapel services.
George Verley, the longtime CEO of Union Gospel Mission who died in 2014, talked to a St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter about attending the camp as a kid during the 1940s. He said he and other kids paid $1 a week for camp.
“It was fantastic. In those days, it seemed like it was 100 miles out there,” Verley said during the 2001 interview.
In 1962, Union Gospel Mission launched a project called Dry Dock to help men overcoming addiction. As many as 25 men who were getting counseling and attending Bible study helped maintain the camp buildings and cared for the camp horses.
The mission ran programs for men at the Shoreview location until moving the programs to its downtown St. Paul location a couple of years ago.
Semrow said the charity was already making improvements to its services and buildings in downtown St. Paul.
It’s adding an indoor play area and installing washers and dryers on every floor of the Naomi Family Residence for homeless women and children.
“We will reinvest in our mission,” he said.
Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037