It’s back to the drawing board.
During the Brainerd School Board meeting Monday, March 8, members voted to table the decision to name the arts center addition in the Brainerd High School renovation and, instead, restart the naming process. In doing so, the board opted to reject a unanimous vote by the district’s 11-person task force assembled to christen the new facility after numerous concerns were raised regarding the process.
The task force’s recommended moniker — the Brainerd Lakes Center for the Arts — received a tepid response from the board, who praised its geographical sensibilities and connection to easily recognizable landmarks, but questioned how the recommendation was formed. Several things — from the philosophical underpinnings, to how the committee was formed, to how public input was incorporated, to the timing of launching the initiative during a global pandemic — were scrutinized by board members.
“My concern, again, is making sure that the community has that voice,” board member Charles Black Lance said. “I know that the community also sits here around the board, and that’s the idea, but I feel we may have stumbled a bit in terms of that process. … Is this an equitable group that we gathered to do this?”
“What I’m hearing is that maybe we just need to back up a little bit,” board member Tom Haglin said later. “I would like to perhaps suggest that we ask for five to 10 volunteers from the communities of Brainerd, Baxter and Nisswa this fall. And not to exceed maybe even one district employee within that group, so that we really get the community involvement.”
Board members also expressed misgivings regarding the fact they were presented with one recommendation, with a few minor variations, instead of a list of potential names they could choose from for the new facility.
After deliberation, the board thanked the task force and district staffers involved in the recommendation, but decided shelving the name for now and renewing the process was the best course of action. The facility is currently scheduled to open May 1, Superintendent Laine Larson noted, and so there’s strong incentive to have a new name to mark the event, but ultimately the board has the authority to wait and bide its time.
Now, the district should return to the local community and encourage them to take part in the process again, Haglin said. During the discussion, board members reaffirmed their support for the idea the final name will not be derived from a person’s name.
One particularly striking point was the makeup of the task force. While the process followed a similar route as the Warrior Learning Center and the new Baxter Elementary School, board members observed that, despite inviting more than 20 local stakeholders, nine of the 11 task force members were tied to the district administration.
Board member Bob Nystrom said the opportunity was granted, but ultimately the decision lies with those who show up and participate in the process, which is not the case for many of the invitees.
"And when I think about wanting to have some affinity for the building … and you say, ‘Well, I’m going to the Paramount, I’m going to the Guthrie.’ Now, where’s the performance? Well, it’s at the Brainerd Lakes Center for the Arts. It just doesn’t roll off the tongue. I don’t think it would hurt to try again."
— Jana Shogren, Brainerd School Board member
The name of the facility garnered no shortage of debate and passionate advocacy among those involved. Community members submitted 154 names during the process, of which 54 were deemed in compliance with district policy. Nystrom said he expected the stipulation the name shouldn’t be taken from a person — lakes area figure or not — would be the most controversial. Instead, he noted, there was a lot of discussion over whether the name should incorporate elements of Ojibwe culture, if it should be emblematic or distinctive, or if it should be easily recognizable for out-of-towners.
Board member Kevin Boyles agreed the name had a practical bent, but observed this also lent it a mundane quality.
“This isn’t particularly scintillating or electric, but it is on point,” Boyles said. “If you’re trying to do events in there and you’re trying to highlight where it is that this is happening … it’s very clear where the event is being held.”
Board member Jana Shogren said she empathized with multiple sides of this debate, but suggested the name Brainerd Lakes Center for the Arts, as straightforward as it is, could actually hamper its ability to attract visitors.
“People from outside of the community didn’t pay for this. They aren’t going to be the ones to predominantly use it,” Shogren said. “And when I think about wanting to have some affinity for the building … and you say, ‘Well, I’m going to the Paramount, I’m going to the Guthrie.’ Now, where’s the performance? Well, it’s at the Brainerd Lakes Center for the Arts. It just doesn’t roll off the tongue. I don’t think it would hurt to try again.”
During the early portions of the meeting, an advocate for a multicultural name, particularly of Ojibwe extraction, spoke before the board, emphasizing the district’s intentions to create a distinctive, inclusive name that honors the local topography and cultural ethos of the Brainerd lakes area.
Janet Kurtz, a retired educator and former teacher in the district, asked the board to reconsider suggestions that incorporate Mississippi, Brainerd or other geographical terms to honor the institution’s roots, while also acknowledging the diversity of the community.
“I am here with a message of culture and language as you go forth and name this new part of the building or the new building,” Kurtz said. “Words matter. … Maybe Mississippi or go to the origin of culture, say, an important Ojibwe word, which by the way doesn’t have to be 27 letters long, you know, but is a doable word that will represent the origin language of this area.”