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Harbor Center future still unclear

The Harbor Center, a drop-in center for those experiencing mental health challenges, will undergo some changes in the coming months. Photo: LaReesa Sandretsky

On Thursday, Karen Saari arrived at Harbor Center, a drop-in place for people with mental health challenges, to find someone changing the locks on the front door. Saari, the part-time peer helper employed at the center in Two Harbors, said a brief conversation with the locksmith revealed that her supervisors at the Human Development Center had ordered the change.

The locks weren't the only thing that would change that day. A few hours later, Ed Niemi, therapist at the Human Development Center in Two Harbors and Jeff Herman, Human Development Center CEO showed up at the Harbor Center to deliver some news: HDC would be closing the center, which has been open for about 20 years. The announcement was made at a meeting attended by center regulars, Lake County Health and Human Services staff and the Lake County News-Chronicle. The statement was met with heavy silence, finally broken by Harbor Center client Carol Viktora.

"What do you mean, close?" asked Viktora

"From our point of view, it will close," Niemi said.

The County and HDC have been trying to develop a plan for the center's future since July of 2012. Though the proclamation on Thursday sounded final, the dialogue is ongoing.

Health and Human Service Director Vickie Thompson assured those in the room that the Harbor Center would remain open even if HDC steps out of the picture. On Monday, County Administrator Matt Huddleston confirmed that the County is coming up with a strategy to keep the doors open.

"The county is still committed to having a drop-in center...and we're just trying to figure out what the best approach is," Huddleston said.

For years, the County has been contracting with HDC to operate and coordinate the center, relying on a revenue stream from a state-operated mental health service in Duluth, Bridge House. The funds went directly to HDC to pay for a half-time program coordinator for Harbor Center. When Bridge House closed this summer, the funds for the Harbor Center's program coordinator went with them, Thompson said.

The program coordinator position was cut in July, but the center has remained open as the County and HDC have considered options for its operation.

In December, the County sent HDC its proposed 2013 contract. Human Development Center CEO Jeff Herman explained that HDC could not afford to maintain the drop-in center under the proposed contract.

"It's very unfortunate," Herman said at last week's meeting.

According to Herman, the contract only paid for the center's rent and Saari's position, but it didn't cover payroll taxes or funding for programming.

The building space currently rented by HDC and occupied by Harbor Center, is adjacent to the Lake County -News Chronicle on Waterfront Drive. The building is owned by Forum Communications, the News-Chronicle's parent company.

There are several options under consideration for the center, Huddleston said. The County could take over the program, acting as a fiscal agent for the Harbor Center and returning it to a consumer-driven program with less administrative oversight, an arrangement the center has used in the past. Another possibility, he said, is to rework the contract with HDC to cover more of the center's expenses--a move that would allow Harbor Center to retain a grant it receives from United Way. The grant funding would be lost if the County took over the center.

While the future is still unclear, the need for the center seems certain.

"These people would be lost without this place," Saari said.

Saari, who staffs the center four hours per day, six days per week, got a key for the new locks on Friday. She said she's frustrated with HDC's coordination of the program and that she would rather work under County direction.

"They're more willing to work with us," she said.

The only guarantee for the center now is that it will maintain its regular hours until the end of January when Huddleston said the final decision will be made.

Thompson said the County Board of Commissioners has made a commitment to keep the center open and it's clear that its users are just as committed.

"There's a lot of energy. I'm convinced it will work well," she said.

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