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Is the shell-lacking? Two Harbors considers a new one

Constructed 75 years ago as a W.P.A. project, the Paul Gauche Memorial Band Shell in Two Harbors hosts concerts by the City Band, the Movies in the Park program, the Friday Night Concert Series sponsored by Arts on Superior, the Heritage Days Art Festival and other events. (Sonja Peterson / News-Chronicle)

Community members clashed at Monday's Two Harbors City Council meeting when a group called Friends of the Band Shell Park requested the council's support for a plan to renovate or replace the Paul Gauche Memorial Band Shell in Thomas Owens Park.

Though the council eventually decided to give the group a formal letter of support for the proposal, Councilor Mary Rosati and members of the Arts on Superior group worried that the project was not in the best interest of the entire community.

Al Anderson, a member of FBSP and leader of the City Band, explained that the friends group began as a committee of City Band members concerned that the 70-year-old band shell no longer met their needs. The band shell's stage is a tight fit for the City Band and other large performance groups. When the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra played a concert there last summer, "they were sitting right up to the edge of the stage," Anderson said. The stage isn't handicap accessible. And the band wants a permanent space for rehearsals and storage of uniforms, instruments and music.

"The City Band has existed for 115 years, and it's been a foster child for all of that time," Anderson said. They've rehearsed in the fire hall, courthouse, Two Harbors High School and Minnehaha Middle School. Their storage space is scattered around town.

Friends of the Band Shell Park was officially formed as a nonprofit 501c3 in 2010. The group proposes to remodel or rebuild the band shell in Thomas Owens to accommodate larger groups and include rehearsal space, storage space, public restrooms and other amenities. They plan to raise funds for the project themselves and hope to receive a $50,000 grant from the Two Harbors Area Fund. But to secure that grant and seek further funding, they need city approval, since the band shell is located on public property.

"We're not asking for any money, just your support and approval," Anderson said.

Councilors including Steve Detlefsen, Seth McDonald and Mayor Randy Bolen were enthusiastic about the proposal. "Thank you for taking this initiative," Bolen said. "I'm eight years in, and I remember this being talked about when I first got here."

But before they passed the motion, the council heard from Linda Melcher of Arts on Superior. Melcher said that she and other community members present at the meeting were concerned that FBSP wanted to fix something that was already working.

"The band shell meets a need in town," Melcher said. "What's missing is a place to hold larger performances, like the symphony and the City Band. But does it have to be that band shell and that park?" She suggested that time and effort would be better spent revitalizing the downtown and that a performance space could be built on the waterfront.

She also said that FBSP did not accurately represent the interests of the entire community. "There are more people in town that use the park than the City Band. It belongs to all of us," she said. "Let's make sure this meets all of our needs, not just the City Band's needs."

Detlefsen asked if the council wanted to expand the motion to specify that their letter of support require FBSP to consider alternative sites to Thomas Owens Park for the band shell.

John Gregor of FBSP responded that they wanted to use Thomas Owens Park because of its strategic location in the center of town. Anderson added that there might be issues with acquiring property on the waterfront for a performance space, and that taconite dust or fog from the lake could harm band members' instruments.

Rosati wanted to know if it was possible that the original band shell would be demolished and replaced by the group. "We need to remember it's the Paul Gauche Memorial Bandshell. We don't want to just tear that down," she said.

Larry Sower, another FBSP member and a City Band tuba player, responded that the group was interested in moving the band shell, angling it toward the north or northwest to allow for rehearsal space to be built behind it. In the group's letter to the council, they specify that they intend to "preserve the 'historic look' of the current structure as much as may reasonably be done including preserving as much of the current structure as is economically viable."

Bolen was skeptical that the band shell could be moved but open to the idea of replacing it. "If it needs to be torn down, it needs to be torn down and replaced," he said.

Nancy Ojard, a FBSP member, responded to concerns about whether the group fairly represented community interests. "Four out of nine of us are not members of the City Band," she said. She said the group would preserve the park's role as a community center.

Melcher closed by requesting that FBSP and the City Council make sure that meetings concerning the project are publicly posted and open to community input.

The entire council except Rosati voted to give a formal letter of support to FBSP. Rosati said after the meeting that she didn't have a problem with the plan to construct an addition or a separate building for rehearsal and storage space in Thomas Owens Park. But she didn't support the group's plan to move the band shell or replace it.

"I would never support tearing down the band shell," Rosati said. If FBSP decides that replacing the band shell is necessary, she said she wants to have that decision made by a city-wide ballot.

Rosati said she hopes that Arts on Superior and the rest of the community will continue to pay attention to the project. "I think both groups can work together to produce something really great."