Landfall proud to be mobile-home city
By Jenna Ross
Minneapolis Star Tribune
LANDFALL, Minn. — Landfall is no White Bear Lake. Not even close.
The smallest city in Washington County, it has 700 people to White Bear’s 24,325 and 52.8 acres to White Bear’s 5,477. It has less than two-thirds the median income and six times the rate of poverty.
But Landfall’s mayor, Greg Feldbrugge, wants residents to have just as much pride in their city. "That’s the goal — for us to see our city like the residents of White Bear see theirs."
Though he rolled his eyes at "their little stickers in their windows of the white bear," he explained: "They have community pride, which is so hard to build when there’s a connotation of, ‘Oh, you’re trailer trash’ and ‘Oh, you’re poor.’"
Yes, Landfall’s residents all live in mobile homes. And yes, many work for minimum wage.
But since this city bought its mobile home park in the 1990s, its leaders, volunteers and kids have created a city government, community pageantry and youth programming fit for a bigger, more affluent place.
In January, their work got noticed: Landfall was named one of the country’s 100 best communities for young people by America’s Promise Alliance, an organization founded by retired Gen. Colin Powell. It was the nation’s smallest community to earn the honor.
The little city that could, if you will.
Landfall’s grid of narrow streets and small lots feels more like a neighborhood than a city.
Of its 52.8 acres, 11 are part of Tanners Lake, which Landfall shares with Oakdale. Another 7.5 are eaten up by the Harley-Davidson and Saturn dealerships, which buffer the city from Interstate 94.
For decades, a couple ran a mobile home park on the land, according to the Washington County Historical Society. In the 1990s, when the park was threatened by a developer’s plan for a mall, the Washington County Housing and Redevelopment Authority bought it. The city, incorporated in 1959, bought the mobile home park from the county in 1997 and now runs it.
During this time, FamilyMeans also got involved.
In 1992, the Stillwater-based nonprofit surveyed residents and found that their biggest concern, by far, was a lack of programs for youth. So FamilyMeans began providing it.
"We started small," said Tom Yuska, FamilyMeans community organizer. "For the first four years, we were operating out of a mobile home.
"Now we’re here," he said, gesturing at the bright basement around him — officially, the Investigation Station in city hall. "This room was supposed to be multipurpose," he laughed, "but we’ve taken it over."
Each day after school lets out, kids filter in. Young kids paint, play with Legos and cook in the Investigation Station. Teens check MySpace, play pool and talk in the Teen Center a block away.
The young people love both spaces. But they’ll tell you the best days are when they leave town on field trips.
"This one time, we rode our bikes to the Science Museum, and on the way back, somebody’s tire popped," said 16-year-old Tasha Radford. "It got really hot standing there, and somebody splashed somebody else (from a fountain). ... Pretty soon we all went swimming in it. Our clothes turned green."
Summers are filled with these bike rides — longer treks for the teens, shorter rides to a nearby Dairy Queen for the kids. They earn points per mile which, coupled with points earned fixing bikes in the city’s youth bike shop, can win them their own wheels.
"I want them to see the world from a different perspective," Yuska said.
Representatives of other mobile home parks have called and visited, wanting to know how they might build vibrant youth programs.
Yuska’s answer: community buy-in. Landfall’s leaders have long supported FamilyMeans’ work. The space in city hall? It’s free.
"In another park, our dollars would go towards just getting the room," Yuska said. "Landfall is unique. They control their own destiny."
The same concept applies to housing. Landfall has not raised the rent on tenants since it bought the park in 1997. It ranges from $273 for small lots with no off-street parking to $336 for large, sought-after lots on "the point" next to Tanners Lake.
"Let’s say someone lived in a privately owned park," said Lee Schoon, park manager. "Their rents could increase anytime. We pride ourselves in putting people up who probably couldn’t afford to live anywhere else, even in another mobile home park."
Mayor Feldbrugge — who goes by the nickname Flash — pays $273 a month and, 11 years ago, got his mobile home for free.
"It was a wreck," said the 51-year-old mayor. But he was broke and newly clean after another bout of "drinking and drugging," which had added assault bookings to an already muddied criminal record.
He fixed up the home. And soon, he was fixing others’ homes and referring to himself as "the rent-a-husband." The work gave him enough attention to win a city council race.
Landfall has long contracted with Maplewood police, who, from the beginning, have organized kids’ fishing fests and planned programs.
Youth crime has always been an issue, but has lessened in recent years. From 2001 to 2003, the city averaged 33.3 juvenile offenses a year. From 2004 to 2006, that number dropped to 7.3 offenses a year.
Sgt. Kevin Johnson said many of the park’s young people are entering their teenage years now, which lately has brought more vandalism and loitering. That worries him.
"You can’t have kids in the Teen Center for 40 hours a week," Johnson said. "They need something to keep these kids busy."
There’s talk of transforming a tot lot into a skate park, an idea teens brought to the city council in 2003.
Feldbrugge supports the idea but worries that a skate park might be "one more opportunity for kids from other communities to come and pick on" the Landfall kids.
But the young people themselves know that kids from Oakdale and Maplewood visit for other reasons.
"Yeah, people are always here from other places. It’s because they don’t have the same stuff going on," said 14-year-old Da’Shaun Henderson, who attends Maplewood Middle School. "They’re jealous."