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By Ward Merrill, Executive Director, Backus Community Center - International Falls
Twenty years ago, two historic landmark buildings were the center of a divisive community debate. Would the Alexander Baker School (1914) and the E.W. Backus Jr. High School (1937) be adapted for reuse or become merely rubble in a landfill? Thanks to a passionate group of citizens the buildings were saved.
Citizens for Backus/AB, formed in 2002, purchased the buildings for $850. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, “Backus” is now a thriving nonprofit community center. In Koochiching County, a county of only 12,000 residents, the center sees up to 57,000 people use the building annually. Filled with 14 tenants who provide a variety of social services, youth, and art programs, the center is often viewed as the 'heart' of the community.
In mid-March 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Backus ceased all programs to focus on two primary community needs: food insecurity and affordable housing. The Community Café free meal service, now served to-go, saw use rise from 50 meals to 166 per night. From January through July, Backus served 7,567 meals. Meanwhile, the free Summer Food Service Program has provided 6,012 lunches in June and July alone. Ruby’s Pantry monthly food distribution has seen numbers grow by over 75 percent. The increase in need for food support is only expected to continue.
As for housing, since 2017 Backus has partnered with KOOTASCA Community Action on the reuse of the Alexander Baker School which will provide 30 direly needed units of affordable housing. When completed, the $11.4 million project will be the county’s first multi-family development in almost 40 years and the first tax credit project ever, helping fill a great need while preserving a treasured landmark.
Mary Bartlett, a supporter/member, has said of the center, “The word Backus should be in the dictionary with the definition, a place where all things are possible.”