From Gravel Pit to Local Treasure


The people in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho always find a way to get things done. With an economy built on timber and mining, the town was at a crossroads when those industries deteriorated. So town leaders took advantage of the natural beauty of the surrounding area, which is marked by spectacular lakes, to transform Coeur d’Alene into a tourist destination.

Challenges arose when the town’s only community center closed its doors, followed by the YMCA. Water sports were popular for residents of Coeur d’Alene, and swim teams excelled. Without a pool available for practices and meets, residents sought other sources. Attempts to attract another agency to build its own facility and to cajole government leaders to help out failed, until Mayor Sandy Bleoum and Sue Philo learned of Joan Kroc’s generous gift to The Salvation Army to establish community centers in select locations across the U.S. They also discovered that the Army had formed an Idaho task force to choose a potential location for a Kroc Center. Sandy and Sue joined the task force and, despite facing steep competition from larger communities with definite need, persuaded the group to endorse their proposal over the others.

One problem remaining: every other proposal in the U.S. came from communities where The Salvation Army had established operations, but the Coeur d’Alene’s corps had closed almost 75 years ago. The closest Salvation Army operation was nearly 40 miles away in Spokane, Washington.

Sue and Sandy were elated to learn that The Salvation Army was open to building a Kroc Center in Coeur d’Alene. Commissioner Phil Swyers met with them to deliver the bad news: “You have to put some skin in the game. You need to raise $8 million.”

The committee was stunned. The largest community campaign ever in Coeur d’Alene had raised $3 million—and that was a mammoth effort. The committee chose Jack Riggs, past lieutenant governor of the state, to lead the campaign. The fundraisers made a key decision. Every donor, regardless of the size of the gift, would have his or her name inscribed on a wall in the new building. All would be honored, from the $1 million donation from the Native American Coeur d’Alene Tribe to the little boy who emptied his piggybank.

Majors John and Martie Chamness were appointed to the Kroc Center in faith that the community would rise to the challenge, and it did. Later, Majors Ben and Joann Markham joined the team, eventually assuming full command when the Chamnesses relocated to Hawaii.

The site chosen for the Coeur d’Alene Kroc was ideal in many ways. Located on one of the main thoroughfares, it was near an interstate exchange as well as the Centennial Bike Trail, providing safe access to youth who lived on the other side of the superhighway. However, there wasn’t really a piece of land there. Instead, there was a massive gravel pit that had collected its share of castoffs and rubbish over the years. The town officials pitched in by giving the Army the land and then providing the fill needed to make it usable.

In May 2009, as opening day approached, the Army projected that it would reach 5,000 members in five years. In the first year alone, membership exceeded 16,000! At the same time, the corps opened its doors for worship services. Supplementing the Markham family were a few others who had previously attended an Army service. The corps blossomed, soon reaching attendance of around 150 to 200.

The full range of services offered at the center has made a profound impact on the area. (The Salvation Army Coeur d’Alene Kroc Center actually serves five counties in the panhandle of Idaho.) The biggest impact has been the aquatic center, which boasts a 10– lane, Olympic–size swimming pool certified for competition. Not only do the four local high schools use it for their swim team practices and meets, it has also hosted several state competitions and the local Special Olympics. A water safety program for third–graders has grown from 200 students to over 1,000, and will approaching 2,000 students annually in the next two years.

Some of the activities offered are weight training, indoor soccer, basketball, crafts and fine arts, theater, day camp, senior services, music lessons, dance, group exercise, health and nutrition classes, swim classes, wellness coaching and rock climbing. The center also has an indoor playground and a coffee shop. Two programs are in such high demand that the Army is considering expanding its already sprawling facility: the preschool program that allows parents to bring their children in to play while they study or exercise, and the after–school middle school program which was launched when the staff noted the increasing number of teens who came by each afternoon. Tutoring, mentoring, recreation and spiritual guidance have attracted so many participants to the after– school program that it has grown beyond the space allotted for it.

Now retired from public service, Mayor Bleoum reflects on the experience of establishing the Kroc Center: “I have learned from The Salvation Army that you can’t give enough. There is always something more.” Lifelong resident Jack Riggs summed up the general feeling: “In my lifetime this is one of the best things to happen to this community. We are glad all our previous efforts failed so that the door could be opened to this.”

By Major Frank Duracher