Tofte holds special meeting to discuss Birch Grove Community Center

Brian Larsen

Tofte supervisors learned a tough lesson. You don’t mess around with Pickle Ball!

Actually, the special meeting held Tuesday, September 5 at the town hall had more to it than Pickle Ball. It was a chance for community members and township supervisors to discuss how they would proceed with operation of the Birch Grove Community Center. With We-Connect out of the picture, there has been a somewhat tumultuous transition in who runs community programs, and an innocent email from supervisor Craig Horak to Carroll Peterson caused some initial concern.

When Peterson got the email, he thought Horak was referring to shutting the community center down when the school wasn’t open. Horak said his email had more to do with who was getting the code to open the doors to the community center after regular hours or on weekends rather than keeping people from using the facility.

Peterson handed out a copy of his concerns and addressed the supervisors.

“I am here to lobby for West End Seniors. Our group of seniors has been playing pickle ball weekly and on Saturdays for about two years; we want to continue to play this great sport on those days. In the winter and during bad weather we play in the gym. During school days we are grateful for Diane (Blanchette) and the school staff’s help and coordination in making the gym available for play.

“We also need to play when school is not in session, that includes Saturdays year round and weekdays during the summer and holidays.

“Tofte and the West End needs a community center; it is the only place available for current and future programs. There are many small towns like ours where the school is the community center. I suggest you embrace that rather than minimize its use.

“Finally shuttering the school to us would be unfair for West End seniors and any one else. It would force us to drive 60 miles to participate in something that can take place in our neighborhood. You would be asking 70-year-olds to worry about hitting deer in the morning, crazy vacationers in the afternoon and we won’t go into winter driving conditions.”

To Horak’s credit, he apologized for causing any confusion in his reply to Peterson. “The real issue was that you (Carroll) gave the key code to everybody. We had the locks changed at the school because too many keys were floating around. When you sign up for Pickle Ball, you get assigned a key code to enter the building. We don’t want everyone to have a free pass to get into the building when no one else is here. That is a potential liability issue for us, and we don’t want that.”

Peterson said he had indeed sent out the key code to 15 people, and he said that wouldn’t happen again. As far as scheduling, individuals who want a pass have to go to Diane Blanchette and fill out the appropriate paperwork. But Horak made it clear that the township—and not Blanchette—was in charge of the facility.

When asked about using the center to workout in the evening alone, Horak replied, “That will no longer be acceptable.”

Again, this caused quite a bit of discussion. Some members of the audience weren’t happy to lose that privilege. But, as Horak explained, “We can’t have people working out alone at night when no one else is in the building. If someone gets hurt and lays there all night, we will (township) be held responsible. If you work out with a group or a buddy at night, that will work. But we can’t have people in the building alone.”

Horak said a list of procedures to use the community center would be written down and displayed in the building for community members.

A discussion was held about Birch Grove Community Center rental rates, but nothing was decided. Horak said he would talk to the county assessor about setting fair rates to nonprofits who don’t charge people to partake in something like Pickle Ball. Some people now donate cash when they play Pickle Ball or work out. There was talk about charging $25 per month per person to use the facility. One person asked if the town could make money by charging $25 per month to individuals and Horak replied, “Community centers, as a rule, don’t earn money. We have to figure out how much money to charge if we decide to charge, so we don’t lose money.”

Next, the board discussed the proposal for teachers at Birch Grove community charter school to clean their rooms instead of having the township janitor clean them. The hope is that the savings in janitor’s fees will be used to reduce the rental price for the Sapling room.

“Are teachers at the end of the day going to have the energy or time to clean their rooms?” asked several people.

Each teacher would clean about half an hour a day, based on the current time it takes a janitor to clean the rooms. Horak motioned, and Sarah Somnis seconded to have the teachers clean the classrooms. At this time there is no agreement to give a break on rent for the Sapling’s room.

Bruce Zimpel was hired to take over the janitor duties. When asked when he could start, Zimpel, who was in attendance at the meeting, said he could start the next day. He was somewhat disappointed to learn his hours would potentially be reduced from the advertised 15 hours per week to 10 based on the school taking over some of the requirements, but Horak said there was outside work, snow shoveling and hockey rink duties that could be added to his cleaning time.

Supervisors voted to try and give away an unused desk to the Cook County/ Grand Marais EDA if it fits in the EDA office. If it doesn’t fit, an attempt will be made to sell it, or it will be stored somewhere outside of the building.

A motion was made and passed to have Cook County represent Tofte in the upcoming U.S. Census.

Before the meeting ended Supervisor Sarah Somnis told the audience, “This year will be a big adjustment period for us. We will make changes throughout the year. None of this came with a manual, so we will have to learn as we go.”

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