Backus group faces another hurdle

Nearly 100 concerned citizens came out to a meeting at the Backus auditorium in International Falls last night to discuss how to raise the needed renovation funds to prevent the complex from being permanently closed.
“We’re kind of at a roadblock, another little hurdle,” said Kay Arnold, chair of the Citizen for Backus/AB board of directors.
“It’s not that we haven’t met hurdles before,” she added. “We’re hoping with the community’s support, we can jump this hurdle, too, and move on.”
The board of directors was informed last week by the Falls’ fire chief and city building inspector that sprinklers need to be installed on the third floor and attic of the Backus building, and the roofs replaced by this fall, or the complex would be closed.
The sprinkler system must be installed by Sept. 30 at an estimated cost of $34,000 (U.S.)
“We are a different use than the school was, so the codes are different,” noted Arnold. “We have to meet those codes. Otherwise, they can shut us down Oct. 1.”
“The code says it has to be a tested, operating system on that date,” added Joe VanGuse, who sits on the board of directors.
That gives the board just over two months to come up with the funding and have the work done. “We have to do something now,” Arnold stressed.
As well, the roofs need to be replaced on both the Backus and the AB buildings, at an estimated cost of $300,000-$500,000 (U.S.)
The deadline for the roofing has been set for December, but it’s possible that date can be pushed back.
“If we show them significant, viable progress, they will work with us,” VanGuse noted, though adding this still means that funding will have to have been found and significant work will have to have been done.
Citizens for Backus/AB called the community meeting last night to inform people of the situation and to get their help.
VanGuse said one citizen already had offered a donation of $10,000, but it was conditional on someone else matching it.
Several people spoke up to share their ideas and volunteer their help. One man, for instance, suggested the group approach some of the local construction trades to ask them to donate their labour.
“If they can do it for free, you cut your costs in half,” he reasoned.
Board member John Faith agreed it was a good idea, but noted only specially-certified workers can install sprinkler systems, of which there are none in the community.
Another citizen volunteered to approach local businesses and contact his county commissioner to encourage them to support the project. “I’m going to support this as much as I can,” he pledged.
Linda Faith, of the Backus fundraising committee, said they are anxiously looking for more people help raise funds. She offered training to anyone who felt uncomfortable about asking for money.
“I’m asking you to come in and get the training. No one person can do this alone,” she said.
“We’re just ordinary folk that believe in a project very, very much,” John Faith added.
“I’d like to throw out a challenge,” said one woman in the crowd. “I’m willing to give $1,000 if I can find other people who will do the same.”
Her offer was met with applause.
Another woman said the group could not put their hopes in large corporate donations.
“To get our money, we’re going to have to go door-to-door. You have to have a grassroots,” she noted, adding the large retail companies in town often take money out of the community without giving back.
“I would hate to be in this area without the chance of any performance art going on,” said Donna Frederickson, vice-chair of the board of directors.
Frederickson, who also is a teacher, said her students are required to see at least one live performance every year and report on it. “I think live performance is very important,” she noted.
The cost of tearing down the structures would be about $1 million (U.S.), Arnold noted. “When you think about it, $34,000 is not that much.”
The upgrade costs are in addition to the facility’s annual operating budget of about $150,000 (U.S.) per year.
“We’re trying to fill a void in this community,” Frederickson said with emotion. “We all have to imagine, ‘What would this block look like without this building?’”
Last month, the Backus complex was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. This designation entitles the group to apply for federal and state funding, but on condition that the building meets code.
“We won’t be eligible until we bring the building up to code,” Arnold explained.
The group was keenly aware of the irony that they could not apply for funding because they do not meet building codes, but could not meet building codes because they don’t have the funding.
The Backus building currently houses the local 4-H club, the Northland Art Society, Bob’s Woodworks, two dance studios, a writers’ work space, an art gallery, a coffee shop, meeting rooms which can be rented by the hour, day, or week, and “The Dungeon,” which is scheduled to open in two weeks.
The building also is used by the Border Concert Association, a variety of professional performances and concerts, children’s and community theatre, dance recitals and rehearsals, school productions, conventions, and storage.
“This building is being used now almost every day,” Arnold noted. “There are a lot of positive things going on here at Backus and we have to keep it going.
“We’ve come this far. We cannot fall apart now,” she stressed.
Tomorrow (Thursday) is the one-night only performance of “Broadway on the Border Review,” a revisiting of some of the best performances from “Broadway on the Border” shows from the last six years.
Tickets will be available at the door for $10 (U.S.), with all proceeds going to the Citizens for Backus/AB.