Community group takes over Backus

It began as a fight to prevent the A.B.-Backus complex across the river in International Falls from being closed or torn down.
On Wednesday, amid smiles and cheers, “Citizens for Backus-AB” were handed the keys to the place and put in charge of keeping those doors open.
“It seems like it was a long time coming but it’s finally here,” group president Kay Arnold said, suppressing tears. “Without you, we would not be here.”
The fate of the historic buildings was unclear when the International Falls school board decided to close the complex for school use back in June.
After months of negotiations, “Citizens for Backus-AB” signed a purchase agreement with the board Tuesday to take over control of it.
Yesterday, about 40 people turned out for a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the group’s victory. School board chair Gerald Bolstad then handed over the keys.
“I think it’s great,” he said afterwards. “Some citizens have thanked the school board but they should really thank this group of people who did all the work.
“All we did was sign the building over.”
“It is up and going and it is so great,” Carole Mackintosh of Fort Frances said after the ribbon-cutting. “I’m just so happy this is finally happening.”
The group plans to operate Backus as a community centre for arts, culture, and lifelong learning.
Treasurer Randi Wherley said the operating budget for this year is an expected $119,182 while $136,682 is estimated to be needed to keep it open in 2003-04.
The group is looking to rent out space to local arts groups or to conferences that might be held at Backus. Benefit concerts also are planned, such as the one featuring “Marcoux Corner” this Monday at 7:30 p.m. which will see all proceeds go to the group.
Tickets cost $10 (U.S.) each, although other donations also are welcome.
A special pre-concert is planned starting at 7, with Henry Wiens performing.
Government grants also are being sought to help pay for a full-time maintenance worker and director of the centre down the road.
“I’m excited and scared,” said Jill Warner, acting director of the community centre. “It’s a big task but I think we have enough support from the community if everybody does a bit.”
Already they are looking for people to help usher at events, offer to act as custodians, or help with office work.
International Falls Mayor Harry Swendsen said he couldn’t help but be impressed by the efforts of “Citizens for Backus-AB.”
“These buildings are huge community assets,” he said after yesterday’s ceremony. “I’m here because of the grassroots efforts of our community.
“It’s groups like this that makes me proud to be mayor of this community.”
Standing on the edge of the Backus stage, Swendsen couldn’t help but be nostalgic for the historic building.
“I performed on this stage in the fifth grade,” he admitted. “My class was singing a song and I was in the back.”
He recounted how he didn’t think anyone could see him so he made jokes and poked at his friend next to him, all of which was caught by their teacher in the balcony.
“So I know this can be a tough stage,” he laughed.