The Free Press, Mankato, MN

July 9, 2013

Sports facilities not a top youth need

---- — Using taxpayer dollars to build a regional multi-use sports complex or not to use such dollars? We clearly seem to be heading in the “to build” direction.

How much of the money will come from public dollars is yet to be determined. The quest, initiated by the ice hockey community, has been broadened to garner support from other sports-minded sectors by pursuing a multi-use sports facility. Other efforts to gain support are to frame the need as a benefit to our youth. This is not really an editorial about an ice rink. Rather, about investing city and county dollars towards a market study, and ultimately a sports facility, in the name of “helping our kids.”

I do not doubt that some kids will benefit. But, is a multi-use sports facility exactly what our kids have been clamoring for? Are the needs of children, youth and their families, particularly those most disadvantaged, so minimal that our counties can afford to partially fund market studies?

Let’s examine the first question posed — is this what our kids want? I have no idea if part of the market study entails talking with a broad spectrum of children and youth from our community, but I suspect not. There have been recent efforts to talk to kids about just such a thing. For the past 1 1/2 years, the Otto Bremer Foundation had funded the Youth Voice Initiative through the Mankato YWCA. One of the accomplishments of Youth Voice was conducting a series of small group meetings with youth to ask them directly what would make our community a great place to live.

The ideas of the youth who participated in Youth Voice sessions formed the basis for dialogue at the Feb. 11 Community Summit on Youth — a community conversation of over 300 adults and youth on the well-being of youth and how to improve our community for all youth. At the Summit, and follow-up meeting on March 11, youth and adults identified five high need areas: 1) a teen center, 2) better public transportation, 3) increased mentorship opportunities, 4) jobs and job training, and 5) greater involvement of youth in community decision-making and leadership.

The conversations started with youth need to continue. Otherwise, we as a community may end up investing in initiatives for our kids that we as adults want, with the best of intentions, but not necessarily what our kids want or need.

The second question posed asks whether funding a market study for a sports complex, in particular with funds from the counties, should be a priority. Are all of our children, youth and their families thriving? The answer to that question is a resounding — no. In February I unveiled a report on the well-being of children and youth in Mankato/North Mankato. One part of the report used secondary data sources to examine the economic, educational, social-emotional, and health indicators of children and youth well-being.

In some areas the trends are positive, in others cause for concern. The other section of the report presents the results of interviews with 66 area adults, many in leadership positions, from family and youth-serving, business, K-12 education, higher education, health care, faith, media, arts, and the government sectors.

One predominant theme expressed by a majority of people interviewed was that the “poor economy appeared to have taken a significant toll on many children, youth, and their families and is contributing to the greater divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘haves not’ in our community.” It is impossible to imagine that over the last several years county human services and public health have not encountered significant challenges in responding to the increased needs, let alone engaged in anything remotely close to youth and family outreach and primary prevention.

The Mankato/ North Mankato community has been the recipient of America’s Promise Alliance’s 100 Best Communities for Young People four times. Our community was selected each time, not because we are the literal “best.” Rather, because we have strived to fulfill the five promises to ALL children and youth in our community — caring adults, safe places, a healthy start and healthy development, effective education, and opportunities to help others.

We, as a community, will not fulfill the five promises to all of our kids if we let a market study from an outside group determine what will “help our kids.” In the absence of Youth Voice, we as a community need to find a way for adults to listen to a broad spectrum of youth with an open-mind, to ask tough questions whose answers we might not want to hear, and to truly collaborate with youth in order to determine what will make Mankato/North Mankato a great place for all kids to live, learn, work, play, worship, and grow.

The Report on the Well-Being of Children and Youth in Mankato/North Mankato, Fulfilling the Five Promises: Caring Adults, Safe Places, Healthy Start and Healthy Development, Effective Education, and Opportunities to Help Others can be accessed by going to:

Nancy Fitzsimons is a professor of Social Work at Minnesota State University and lives in North Mankato.