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Changes coming to Pioneer Grounds

Perham city councilors this week approved a lease agreement with the History and Cultural Association of East Otter Tail County for the management of Pioneer Grounds.

The move marks a change from the past: for at least the last 25 years, the Historical Society has overseen the grounds.

Last month, that long-time relationship was challenged when the History and Cultural Association put its hat in the ring for consideration. It was time for the annual lease on the grounds to be reviewed, and both the association and the Historical Society submitted proposals to the city.

Councilors held off on making a decision about it at that time, wanting to give the two organizations a chance to work out a cooperative agreement.

However, the History and Cultural Association said it has not heard from the Historical Society since then, and no agreement was reached.

Councilors had also asked the Historical Society to provide Pioneer Grounds’ 2013 financial statements, but still had not seen anything as of their January meeting on Monday.

No representatives of the Historical Society attended the meeting. Darla Ellingson, of the History and Cultural Association, was in attendance.

Councilors voted to give the lease to the association. In addition, they agreed to make a one-time larger donation to the grounds than they had in previous years, in order to help the association get “jump started,” according to City Manager Kelcey Klemm in a follow-up interview.

Instead of the $9,500 annual appropriation that had been given in past years, the city agreed to appropriate $28,000 this year. Those dollars will come from the municipal liquor store fund.

“Ultimately, the council went with their proposal because, even though it’s going to cost us more this year, it seemed like that was what was going to be best for the grounds, and what’s best for the people who use the grounds,” said Klemm. “I think their proposal made a lot of sense in the long run. There’ll be better continuity, there’s a better long-term plan, it’s a well-established organization with an active board and volunteers, and paid staff members.”

He added that councilors liked the association’s plan for use of the grounds, and that management by the association “gets all our historical entities back under one umbrella... which makes sense.”

The association oversees the History Museum and ITOW Veterans Museum in Perham. It is a significantly larger group than the three-person Historical Society, with greater access to resources and a built-in organizational structure capable of handling the grounds’ recordkeeping and fundraising needs, as well as volunteer and rental scheduling.

As the new lessees of Pioneer Grounds, the association plans to make some significant changes in hopes of drawing more positive attention to the historical site and better utilizing it as a community resource.

The hire of a part-time facilities coordinator, who will have set office hours and be easily reachable, is central to the association’s plan. This person will ensure that Pioneer Grounds is accessible to the public as a rental and event space.

“Immediately, we will be working on a plan to make sure the public knows that the History and Cultural Association of East Otter Tail County will be the new contact for rental of the grounds,” Ellingson wrote in a follow-up email to the Focus. “We plan on hiring a coordinator to assist with the rental schedule and marketing of the grounds, as well as our other two facilities (ITOW and the History Museum)... There are also some administrative and insurance matters to be sorted through.”

Ellingson said the association will be looking for volunteers with an interest in helping with events and working with artifacts and displays at Pioneer Grounds.

“It’s an incredible resource,” she said of the grounds, “and working together, we can make it something notable for Perham.”

The current lease on the grounds expires March 31. The new leadership will take effect no later than April 1.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Perham Focus more than five years ago, and has since worn many hats as writer, editor and page designer. She lives in rural Frazee with her husband, Dan, their one-year-old son, Simon, and their yellow lab, Louisa. 

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