For the time being, if you’re in the Backus Community Center, steer clear of the boys’ locker room.

Backus is receiving $58,840 worth of needed repairs and renovations thanks to a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Community Development Grant and support from local donors.

Projects currently underway include updating basement lighting to LED fixtures, removing the asbestos tile and installing new flooring in the main floor east hallway, and locker room and window well drain repairs.

“We’ve pecked away over the years at various projects that maintain the integrity of the building, improve it, and in some cases, make renovations, so we make it more usable for our purposes today,” said Ward Merrill, Backus Community Center executive director.

Maintaining a well-used building that is more than 83 years old can be a costly endeavor, and sometimes an overwhelming one.

“It’s such a historic building that some of these jobs can be quite daunting,” head Backus custodian, Jerry Vohler, said.

Lately, Vohler has found himself in the mud, three-feet below the basement floor in his efforts to keep the building maintained. A portion of floor in the boys’ locker room has been removed since mid-September for renovations.

jerry hole

Backus custodian Jerry Vohler stands near the hole in the floor of the boys’ locker room, which was dug in order to repair the pipes below.

“I’ve been digging and digging so we can replace broken pipes in the floor in the boys’ locker room,” he said.

The projects currently underway entail:

  • Repairing the locker room and window well drains for a cost of $20,000.
  • Replacing the boiler condensate tank for a cost of $8,280.
  • Updating the basement lighting to LED fixtures for a cost of $17,989.
  • Removing asbestos tile in the east hallway of the building, replacing with new tile for a total cost of $10,260.
  • Replacing the fuel lines to the boiler for a cost of $1,000.
  • Purchasing a new floor scrubbing machine for $6,808.
basement lights

BCC Executive Director Ward Merrill walks through the basement of Backus to show where lighting fixtures will be updated.

The current work should enhance the Backus Community Center’s viability for years of future use while preserving its historic features. Special care must be taken to maintain a building as old as Backus, Merrill said.

“Since Citizens for Backus purchased these buildings in 2002, it’s been a struggle to maintain these huge buildings,” he said.


A view of the historic boiler, constructed in 1912, in the basement of Backus. The boiler’s condensation tank will be updated through grant funding.

“We aren’t the school district with a large number of custodians or state funding," he added.

The USDA grant was established to provide funding to develop essential community facilities in rural areas. The grant was awarded because of Backus’ community focus and all of the different services it houses.

That’s one thing that’s so good about doing so many different things, you qualify for a lot of different grants, he said.

The grant supported 55 percent of the project cost and required that Backus provide the remaining 45 percent of the project funding, which came from Koochiching Community Development Association, the disbanded Ray Community Club, the Otto Bremer Trust, Backus and the Henry and Virginia Sweatt fund.


Merrill stands by the boiler’s condensation tank.

“We take pride in our building and want to be good stewards of it,” Merrill said. “You only get one chance to make a good impression.”

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