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The Southside Village Boys and Girls Club has operated out of south Minneapolis' Phelps Field Park for nearly 30 years, providing free after-school activities and summer enrichment for kids. But as its lease with the Minneapolis Park Board nears expiration at the end of July, what might have been a routine extension has turned fraught, dredging up old friction between the club and the board over who has the right to use the park's recreation center.

It's a unique situation: The lease allows an outside organization to operate the public park building as a secure facility that's primarily closed to the public. During the Great Recession, park staff retreated from Phelps, leaving the Boys and Girls Club as the sole provider of recreational programming in the center, paying about $23,000 in rent per year.

Membership in the club is free, but only youth under 18 can be members, and the club's rigorous national child safety policies require background checks for all adults who interact with them. That requires the building to be locked to the general public during the hours when the Boys and Girls Club is in session.

As a result, adults in the neighborhood surrounding Phelps Field Park can't make regular use of their recreational center in the way other Minneapolis residents can in their neighborhood parks — despite having spent neighborhood revitalization dollars to build the gym. The distinction is especially stark given Phelps Field Park's location at the edge of George Floyd Square, an area whose historical disinvestment became a matter of international focus in 2020 and continues to confound city planners today.

Lane Brown, director of Plant-Grow-Share, a food justice program in the Central and Bryant neighborhoods of south Minneapolis, sent a letter to the Park Board last month about the "clear deterioration" of the relationship between the Park Board and the Boys and Girls Club.

"In a park thick with families hungry for the same services being offered at other parks nearby, some of our neighbors are forced to wander helplessly looking for someone to give them access to use the bathroom," Brown wrote. "Elders looking for relief from the summer heat are left standing at the door. Community members who, at other parks, would be provided with a variety of engagement opportunities to meet neighbors and share space are left traversing the broken and abandoned paths. In a park one block from where a movement that changed a nation was born, public resources decay."

According to the lease, the Boys and Girls Club was entitled to a five-year extension if it informed the Park Board that it intended to stay past this July. The club did so, expecting the board to greenlight the renewal without contention.

Middle school students take part in a discussion on self-worth and values at Phelps Recreation Center on Friday.
Middle school students take part in a discussion on self-worth and values at Phelps Recreation Center on Friday.

Alex Kormann, Star Tribune

Lease renewal concerns

But when the lease renewal came up during a Park Board committee meeting on April 24, Park Commissioner Steffanie Musich, whose district includes Phelps Field Park, questioned whether the Boys and Girls Club had been meeting its end of the bargain. Since 2021, the lease had called for the club to make available at least 250 hours a year to Park Board staff to open the doors of the rec center and offer their own programming. But Musich said it was her understanding the Boys and Girls Club had not given park staff anywhere near that number of hours.

"I've been hearing from community for basically before I was elected to office that the building has been privatized, that they do not feel welcome there, that they don't have access to the building, that it's not serving their needs," she said. "Because we're not able to even get access that we've negotiated, it's incredibly difficult for me to support the extension of this lease."

Terryl Brumm, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club Twin Cities, said she was surprised to hear allegations about the club withholding access from the Park Board. After the meeting, she sent the board a packet of information including a schedule showing the club set aside a minimum of 250 hours a year for park staff to program Phelps when they weren't using the rec center. Included was a letter from 2022 in which the club offered to help the Park Board host its signature "Nite Owlz" teen nights there. That program never came to fruition, but not because of any unwillingness to collaborate on the club's part, Brumm said.

"If there are community members that have come and said they don't feel like they have access, let's sit down and figure out how to make that happen," she said. "We do have to follow the rules of our national office in order to be a Boys and Girls Club. There's going to be limitations during certain hours of the day. But is there a way to figure out around that? We've heard that people are upset, but we don't know what they're wanting, and so it's hard for us to create a solution."

At the next Park Board meeting in May, dozens of Boys and Girls Club families swarmed the public comment time, testifying about how the club has bettered their lives and imploring the commissioners not to kick them out of Phelps.

The extension was postponed, but with two months left until the lease expires it has not yet reappeared on the Park Board agenda.

In an interview, Musich clarified that she was not opposed to renewing the Boys and Girls Club's lease, but that her constituents wanted more public access to the Phelps Recreation Center.

These days the Southside Village Boys and Girls Club is winding down its after-school programming as it transitions to summer child care. The club has recently readied an office inside the rec center for park staff. The club is also planning a series of "Community Fridays" this summer to engage the wider community around Phelps.

The neighborhood's desire to reactivate Phelps Field Park as a community resource became heightened after COVID and Floyd's murder, when the Boys and Girls Club set up a mutual aid food depot in the Phelps gym and the George Floyd family fund granted the club $25,000 to hire a child therapist.

Park staff also began their return to the park at that time. But while the Park Board and the Boys and Girls Club had negotiated sharing time at Phelps Park, former park recreation leadership and facility staff did not talk to each other about what they could do with that time, said Dawn Sommers, the Park Board's communication director.

Before 2023, the Park Board didn't budget any money for indoor programming at Phelps, said Mimi Kalb, the Park Board's assistant superintendent of recreation. Since then, park staff have offered nearly 300 hours of activities including basketball, archery and writing programs, and are working to expand their footprint in collaboration with the Boys and Girls Club. But they still don't have the resources to create a regular Nite Owlz program or staff the rec center as an open facility for all the hours that the club makes available, Kalb said.

"Can we do a better advertising of when we have programs during what times and when the building will be unlocked? Yes we can and we will," Kalb said. "We're trying to pool resources in that service area and do programming as we can, but as far as just an open [facility], we are not there yet."

Christian, aka “Blaze,” a sixth-grade student, raises his hand to answer a question during group activity time at the Phelps Recreation Center in Minneapolis on Friday.
Christian, aka “Blaze,” a sixth-grade student, raises his hand to answer a question during group activity time at the Phelps Recreation Center in Minneapolis on Friday.

Alex Kormann, Star Tribune