When City of Gary residents come together to work on a community project, they don’t just talk about the project. They physically do the work together. In this northwestern Minnesota town with a population just over 200, talent runs deep.
“Right from the beginning, I found something unique about this community,” said Virajita Singh of the University of Minnesota (UMN) College of Design Center for Sustainable Building Research. With support from the UMN Extension Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Northwest RSDP), Singh and College of Design graduate student Maxwell Dickson worked with Gary residents to develop a master plan for the Gary Pines forest.
The 160-acre pine forest runs along Highway 32 and holds historical significance to the community. Generations of residents have worked on the forest since it was developed as a Conservations Corps project in the 1930s. Originally a dusty area with blowing soil, the site was transformed into a pine forest. Local school children planted seedlings over the years, and community uses of the area became the stories of elders.
Today, the Pines host hikers, horseback riders and ATVs, along with a community picnic shelter and rest area. After completing a comprehensive plan for their town, residents started thinking about how they could best plan for the future of the pine forest.
“Over a few decades, virtually every family in town had a labor investment in the Pines, and sometimes many generations,” said Northwest RSDP Executive Director Linda Kingery. “The City of Gary was interested in thinking about how they could better use this property.”
In 2017, residents of all ages shared their interests for the forest in a series of community meetings hosted by Singh. These visioning sessions included members of the local American Legion, fire department, city council, school and 4-H, as well as outdoors enthusiasts, recreationalists, teachers, students and grandparents.
Discussion started with the trails that run through the forest. Gary residents were interested in how they could expand use of the trails for future generations. “As we got into the process, planning for some additional assets came into the conversation,” Kingery said.
Residents also wanted to develop a nature play area where children could connect with natural resources. The Northwest RSDP and Singh have supported a large portfolio of nature play projects over the years, and brought this experience into the conversations. Still, each nature play area is unique to the local area, and Gary Pines proved no different.
At one planning meeting, a youth in attendance suggested building an American Ninja Course in the trees. “The next day, I asked [City of Gary Mayor] Karie [Kirschbaum], ‘What in the world is an American Ninja Course?’” Kingery recalled. The group learned more, and today the Gary Pines houses a unique obstacle-course-in-the-forest.
“Providing opportunities for good physical activity was another of the plan’s objectives,” Singh said.
Even Northwest RSDP board members have taken a turn at balancing, hopping, jumping and climbing their way through the course. “Last June when we had our board meeting at Gary Pines, we played on the ninja course,” Kingery said.
Today the Gary Pines area has a comprehensive master plan for its future uses and aspirations. The plan covers trail development, vegetation, nature play for children, fire safety and a variety of recreational uses. Beneficiaries include not only the residents of Gary, but visitors to the Agassiz Recreational Trail area and, in the words of Kingery, anyone who is encouraged to “slow down a bit, stop and experience the town of Gary and Gary Pines area.”
Small town resources run deep
Northwest RSDP and Singh helped translate a vision, but they are quick to credit the community. Many of the projects envisioned in the planning process were built by residents, Kingery said. A local artist created chainsaw carvings of the names of trailheads. Another crafted wooden benches with Northern woods images. Amish craftsmen sawed lumber and built the American Ninja Course. Mayor Kirschbaum used her skills to identify grants and other resources, and served as a strong community champion for the work. The city was able to use grant funds from other sources to purchase materials. Gary also boasts many active elderly people eager to help out.
“When ideas become visible for people, there’s a tremendous amount of support that flows in,” Kingery said.
The Northwest RSDP helped put together a funding package that also included financial support for the project provided by the Northwest Minnesota Foundation and UMN Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) Community Assistantship Program (CAP).
Other communities have since shown interest in doing something similar. Nearby City of Fertile has been working on a master plan for the Fertile-Sand Hill Recreation Area, and reached out to Mayor Kirschbaum to learn from the Gary Pines effort. Anyone interested in visiting the Pines, exploring the trails, or trying their hand at the Ninja course is encouraged to attend the Grand Opening on June 16, 2018, during the annual Gary Days celebration.
Whether it’s a master plan for a pine area or an entirely different local sustainability project, Kirschbaum encourages other communities to "get in contact with the University and see how they can work together for rural Minnesota." With a town housing as much talent as Gary, innovative possibilities exist.
For more information on this project, contact Northwest RSDP Executive Director Linda Kingery at email@example.com or 218-281-8697.
Learn more about the Gary Pines project and grand opening.
Read the Gary Pines Master Plan report (Dickson & Singh, 2017).