Ely landmark all but sold

Community Center sale heads toward December closing

by Tom Coombe -

The sale of the Community Center building is all but final, following action by Ely council members Tuesday night and despite a last-minute plea by another would-be buyer.
A city ordinance authorizing the sale was approved for the second and final time on a 6-1 council vote and the deal could close as soon as December, according to city attorney Kelly Klun.
The developments clear the way for Minneapolis couple Jimmy and Africa Yoon to buy the building for $30,000 and proceed with their plans to repurpose and remodel the former community gathering place, and turn it into a venue for Korean culture inspired camps.
A saga that has played out at a series of public meetings continued this week with another pitch from Ely resident and council candidate Angela Campbell, who had submitted a separate offer to buy the building.
Prior to the council vote, an emotional Campbell voiced her appreciation for the building and its history and reiterated criticism of a process that included secret negotiations between city officials and the Yoons.
After the vote, Campbell approached the podium again and said she remains committed to buying the building.
“I want you to know, specifically, I am waiting,” said Campbell. “I will wait. My investors are intact and I will follow the process and make a commitment of community. I will do diligence.”
But unless the sale to the Yoons unravels, Campbell’s $35,000 bid and proposal to operate the building as a community and conference center won’t move forward.
Council members stayed on track this week and showed no signs of wavering, other than a lone vote by Paul Kess to oppose the ordinance.
“I love the Community Center too,” said council member Jerome Debeltz. “I would love to keep it as a city asset, but if we don’t have the sale of the building what’s going to happen. It could come down in a few years and I don’t want to see it come down. I also don’t want to see city taxpayers get stung with higher taxes to pay for the building.”
Campbell, who has rallied support from others who opposed the sale and want the city-owned building to be used as it was in the past, mixed history, emotion and criticism during her address.
She offered a timeline of events and told the council that the process has given her appreciation of “what you on the council are called to do.”
Campbell said she became concerned about the proposed sale to the Yoons and their plans for the building and added she fielded calls from other Elyites who shared similar feelings.
“They called me and said ‘what’s going on? We love the Community Center, the memories and history,’” said Campbell.
She added “When the Community Center was built, there was a depression going on. There was a deep, deep quest to work, to build these mines and support these families. That’s what I envisioned the Community Center to once again become.”
Campbell also addressed her tenure as a member of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and time she spent cleaning the facility after it closed several years ago.
Campbell said she spent numerous eight-hour days in the building with fellow HPC member and Ely native Celia Domich.
“For me it was different,” said Campbell. “I listened to Celia and she’d tell me about these dances and the weekends and would tell me about the families and the generational living that took place, and i would sit there and cry with her and hear voices in my head of these parties and these stories.
“And i would look at this magnificent building and the interior and how it was laid out and how it kept the community together, and it showed me, an outsider, the realness of family. I envy you.”
Campbell also criticized the council for its handling of the issue.
“Secrecy is undemocratic,” said Campbell. “Our system is premised on citizens having information about their leaders, their actions and their intentions so they can express consent or dissent. For council members to deny such basic information to citizens merely to satisfy their own political whims is unconscionable, unexcusable and should be unacceptable.”
The council did not directly respond to Campbell’s remarks, although the council held a public hearing in late-September to gather citizen input on the proposed sale.
Mayor Chuck Novak soothed concerns over the future appearance of the building, which has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
According to Novak, “there may be some changes for code but for the most part the architecture stays.”
The Yoons, who plan to do business as the K American Foundation, have outlined plans to raise as much as $3 million to renovate the building and turn it into a venue for Korean language and culture camps.
Earlier in the year, they submitted a detailed business plan that identified demographic information. The foundation submitted a comprehensive proposal outlining its intent to teach modern arts, including dance, film editing and computer programming to Korean children and adoptees from across the country.
Plans call for the building interior to be renovated to “give a traditional Korean Hanok house feel,” and during the fall and spring, the foundation would reach out to public schools to implement free Korean language programs and invite them to visit the building.
The couple’s business plan highlights a market including a significant population of Korean adoptees in Minnesota and touting Asian consumers as an attractive market with household incomes much higher than the nation’s average.
Council members have approved a zoning change to residential transition, which was one of the contingencies in the sale to the Yoons.
The new owners plan to live in the building as it is remodeled, and the deal with the city gives them up to nine years to fully develop their business plan.
The deal includes benchmarks and allows the city to void the sale and reclaim ownership if the benchmarks are not met.