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State National Guards Partner with Communities to Build Multipurpose Facilities

The Minnesota and Ohio National Guards partner with communities to build multipurpose facilities

In March, D Battery, 1st Battalion, 216th Air Defense Artillery of the Minnesota Army National Guard deployed for Southwest Asia. The outfit most recently spent several months at Camp Irwin in Southern California and Fort Lewis outside Seattle preparing for its overseas mission. But before receiving their marching orders, the troops of D Battery were headquartered at the Monticello Training and Community Center, a facility the Minnesota Army National Guard jointly operates with the city of Monticello.

The 78,000-square-foot facility houses the city's government offices, fitness and recreation center, aquatics center, senior center, "Warehouse" teen center, child-care areas and meeting rooms, as well as D Battery's storage and office facilities. Kitchen, gymnasium and classroom space is shared by the two entities. "There isn't a lot of separation," says Kitty Baltos, director of the part of the facility known as the Monticello Community Center. "Their gym is my gym. Their meeting rooms are my meeting rooms."

The Monticello partnership is just one example of the Minnesota Army National Guard's recent efforts to bring military and civilian communities in that state closer together. All of the Guard's 65 armories have been renamed "training and community centers" to reflect the philosophical change, and many of the dozen or so facilities that have opened in the past several years feature recreation components designed for public use.

"The Minnesota National Guard is represented by people in the community," says Staff Sgt. Dane Kringstad, one of several D Battery troops ordered to remain in Monticello to handle administrative duties. "For that reason, our former adjutant general really clung to the concept of building training and community centers rather than armories."

Even though the buildings are jointly owned and operated, the partnership requires that these facilities be built on land owned by the state of Minnesota. This allows for 75 percent of the construction to be funded by the federal government (the Minnesota National Guard can accept federal resources on behalf of the state for military forces, including construction, facility improvements and maintenance programs). The remaining 25 percent is financed through the sale of bonds, the responsibility of which is equally shared by state and local governments.

Depending on a facility's design, a local government will sometimes end up contributing more toward the project cost than the minimum 12.5 percent. "If a community wants more gym space than the Guard requires for a drill floor, it pays for it," says Terry Palmer, executive director of the Minnesota State Armory Building Commission, which administers the state National Guard's training and community center construction program.

The benefit of this arrangement is twofold: One, each community (if it desires) can get a customized recreation facility for a fraction of the cost of building one on its own. "We try to do it as creatively as possible, so that the facility doesn't look like an armory or a military facility," says Palmer. "It's a better bang for the local taxpayer's buck."

And two, the Minnesota Army National Guard builds rapport with civilian communities. "Each Guard member, as part of his or her service, can spend up to four years with a unit. During that time, he or she is out there pulling weeds or helping out in other ways around the community," Palmer says. "Doing things like this helps take away the mystique of being in the military. People come to understand that we're all citizens - we just happen to be reservists, too."

Minnesota is one of a handful of states in which the National Guard has partnered with public schools and city governments through creative design and financing arrangements to build hybrid armory-civic center complexes. Last November, the Alaska Army National Guard and the University of Alaska Southeast broke ground on a 53,000-square-foot student recreation center and National Guard readiness center.

Officials with the Ohio National Guard - borrowing directly from the model created by their Minnesota counterparts - broke ground in March on the first of six training and community centers slated to come online within the next three years. The first of the Guard's facilities is being built in Bowling Green and will be shared by three entities: the Ohio National Guard, the Bowling Green Parks and Recreation Department and the Wood County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, which operates the local Special Olympics program. "I've been working on getting a facility like this built since 1993," says Robert Callecod, Bowling Green's recreation director. "For a number of different reasons, it didn't happen and I thought the project was dead in the water. But then the National Guard came along and we were rolling again."

That momentum led to the city contributing roughly 40 percent of the cost, the National Guard about 30 percent and Wood County the remainder to build a $9 million facility that, when it opens next spring, will offer 80,000 square feet of recreation, office and storage space. Similar to the Minnesota program, the three partners jointly own the building, while the 20-acre site - which most recently was owned by the city of Bowling Green - is state property. "The land was donated to the city by a benefactor, and the city sold it to the state," explains Callecod. "We were able to put the money from the sale toward our contribution of the building cost."

Operating-cost responsibilities have yet to be determined, but Callecod expects that Bowling Green, because it will occupy a greater percentage of the facility than the other partners, will bear a larger burden. Even if Bowling Green occasionally pays the entire facility's snow removal bill, for example, the city will "be able to reallocate those costs to the other partners, so in essence, they'll be paying us back," says Callecod. "It gets a little bit more complicated, but I'm not going to worry too much. We let the bean-counters at the state capitol worry about that."

Callecod doesn't foresee too many other operational challenges, now that he knows Guard members won't be using the four-court gymnasium/drill floor for anything but meetings and basic drill exercises. "My initial concern was that they would be driving Humvee vehicles in there," he says. "But this particular unit is light infantry - no heavy vehicles."

During the one weekend each month when Guard troops will inhabit the facility, they also might use the gym as a mess hall. "But then we'll drop a divider and roll out floor covers," says Callecod. "And on the weekends, we won't be programming any league play, anyway - it's just open-gym time. It'll be a minor inconvenience."

Monticello's Baltos says it's really pretty simple: The National Guard gets scheduling priority. "It's hard for them to change their drill schedules at the last minute," she says. Although Baltos adds that "there isn't a whole lot of interaction" between the two user groups, Kringstad believes that D Battery's premium location has helped its ranks grow significantly. Prior to the training and community center's opening in 1999, D Battery regularly trained more than 100 miles away and coordinated its local recruiting efforts from a small office. Then, there were only 15 Guard members in the unit. Today, D Battery has more than 10 times that number of troops.

Although they were pleased to see such rapid growth, Kringstad admits that he and his fellow soldiers needed some time to adjust to D Battery's image makeover. Apparently, they weren't the only ones. "Initially, we had a problem with people getting lost on their way here," he says of potential recruits, many of whom were no doubt searching for a facility with a more-pronounced military presence. "Now, we just tell people to ask for the community center, or to look for the place with the big pool."

Personally, Baltos likes the fact that her local National Guard has become more accessible. "It's really opened our eyes to the fact that we have soldiers in our community," she says of the partnership. "That's the best part: knowing that they're here and giving our kids a chance to meet them."

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