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Two Harbors drop-in center funding in flux

The Harbor Center on Waterfront Drive in Two Harbors is a popular gathering spot for those with mental health issues. (News-Chronicle)

The sound of oscillating fans was the only noise that broke the subdued mood in the Harbor Center in downtown Two Harbors. The center offers drop-in services and programming for those experiencing mental health issues, and many attending the meeting Monday were surprised and relieved to even find the place open.

Rob Laska, a center regular, had heard rumors that the center would close Monday as a result of funding cuts by Lake County Human Services. Ed Niemi, team leader and psychologist from the Human Development Center in Two Harbors which oversees the center, organized a meeting to discuss the new direction Harbor Center must take.

Laska was just happy to know that the center was open for another day.

"This place would really be missed," Laska said.

Niemi assured the group that the Harbor Center would remain open. Despite the good news, a big question still remains. How will the Harbor Center operations be funded and who will be its coordinator?

The Human Development Center received a letter from Vickie Thompson, director of Lake County Human Services, notifying them that its contract funding for the Harbor Center program had been terminated without cause effective July 26.

When the state-operated mental health outreach center Bridge House closed in Duluth, so did a revenue stream for the county, Thompson said. The loss of revenue was the exact amount the county pays HDC to maintain its half-time coordinator at Harbor Center.

Aside from the loss of the coordinator position, "we have the funds to continue the program," Thompson said. According to the terminated contract, the county also paid for rent and programming at the center. Thompson said the county would step in to take over the coordinator duties.

The building space the Harbor Center rents on Waterfront Drive is owned by Forum Communications, the parent company of the Lake County News-Chronicle.

Upon receiving the letter, Niemi's understanding was that the termination of the contract meant a loss of all funding for the Harbor Center. He first learned of the county plan to take over the coordinator position at the Monday meeting.

"It's pretty unacceptable the way this is unveiling," Niemi said. Although HDC has programs where the host county is involved at a similar level, he was unaware of the option upon receiving the contract-termination letter. He said the county's proposal must be discussed with HDC management and then the county.

"It's just like, I can't go into any private business and run it," he said.

HDC and the county have yet to communicate directly about the issue, which has resulted in the misunderstandings, Thompson said.

Niemi, who found out about the funding cuts a week ago, said Harbor Center will try to raise the money to finish the year out on its own. Grants, fundraisers, and donations were all mentioned as possible sources to raise the $5,700 needed to complete the 2012 fiscal year budget.

"I think we could do it," Laska said.

Everyone at the meeting agreed that Harbor Center should and will stay open. The center has between 200 and 300 visits monthly. Its website says it is "a positive place for people experiencing mental illness to socialize and enjoy a safe environment free of stigma."

"People wouldn't know what to do if it was closed," said another center regular Carol Viktora.

Both Niemi and Thompson expressed their faith in the program and a resolve to keep it running.

"We're not going to abandon these folks," Niemi said.

Anyone wishing to donate to the Harbor Center fund can call 834-5520 or mail or drop off a donation at the HDC Mental Health Center located at 629 First Avenue, Two Harbors. Donations must be specifically directed to the Harbor Center.

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
(218) 834-2141