It took the tragic death of a high school student in 2008 to bring about a movement for change in the small town of Gustavus. The memorial service was held in a drafty airplane hangar - the only place in town large enough to accommodate all the mourners. It was there that a few individuals began to reflect on what makes a healthy, resilient community, and whether something could be done to ensure Gustavus stays that way, even in the face of numerous challenges. The individuals began a dialogue with the community as a whole, and thus began the grassroots campaign to build a community center. With overwhelming support of residents, the Gustavus Community Center incorporated as a 501(c) (3) organization in 2009.
At about this time, eight acres of meadow in the very center of Gustavus came on the market. Each summer, more than 11,000 visitors pass by this property on their way to nearby Glacier Bay National Park. It’s an easy walk or bike ride from the property to the school, public library, post office, city hall, community garden and “downtown” businesses. There’s enough land for buildings and outdoor activities. The community believed so strongly that this would be the ideal location for the center that it came together and bought it. Donations from 150 individuals, 11 businesses, and tremendous response to fundraising events enabled the Gustavus Community Center to buy the property within two years, with 94% of dollars generated locally.
Even without a building of its own, the Center quickly began organizing community activities, although they had to be held outdoors - always a risky proposition given Southeast Alaska’s notorious weather - or in borrowed indoor spaces. The Center offered year-round programming ranging from the annual harvest festival, to planting an edible landscape, organizing jazz and blues music performances, art classes, and exercise classes.
In 2012, the Gustavus Community Center was chosen to participate in the Foraker Group Pre-development Program. Foraker Group offers guidance and technical resources to help Alaskan non-profits determine the feasibility of their projects and develop the documentation needed for funding applications. After two intense years of meetings, planning, and research, the Community Center finalized a realistic, sustainable budget, business plan, and a conceptual design for a multi-purpose building which will contribute to the long-term viability of the organization and the community it serves.
Fundraising for the community center building kicked into high gear in 2014. Over the next five years, our little community continued to rally for the Center, donating more than $700,000 in cash and in-kind towards a $1.4 million project. No city taxes were used to fund the project. The commitment of the community inspired the Rasmuson Foundation to make a $400,000 top-off grant, which gave us the confidence and support to begin construction in 2019. The 6,000 square foot building has a wing devoted to indoor fitness, a generously proportioned commercial kitchen, a multi-purpose main hall, two large covered porches, and adjacent is a root cellar for community use. All the work was performed by local contractors, who donated many unpaid hours to make sure the building was completed on budget. The building is a testament to what can be accomplished with teamwork and a desire to improve the quality of life for your town. Throughout the Capital Campaign and during construction of the building, the Center continued to provide activities and programs such as the Community Science series, plein air sketching classes, bike tune-up clinics, pie socials, and music performances.
The Community Center building was ready to open its doors to the public in early 2020 - just as the Covid-19 pandemic rolled across the nation. Instead of being the venue for art shows and exercise classes, the Center became the venue for vaccination clinics, food distributions, and socially distanced voting. It was the only public building in Gustavus large enough to accommodate the town in a safe manner. For our other activities, we adapted and carried on -"drive by pie” on the 4th of July, dances in the field under tarps, art classes on the covered porches - we were (and are) resilient!
The long hoped-for Grand Opening was May 28, 2022. It was a day filled with food, entertainment, music, and a celebration of the community’s tenacity, creativity, and patience!