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Common Ground

The marquee lights were flashing Friday night at the Chief Theater in West End Cloquet. "Open, Open, Open," they announced. Just inside the doorway, where the lobby of the movie house once stood, the staff at the Common Ground Coffee Shop & D...

Darrel Baker orders a drink from Emma Harris, 15, Friday, Jan. 19, at Common Ground coffee shop and deli in West End Cloquet in the building that housed the former Chief Theater. Baker came to see his friend, bass player Mark Sjelin, perform with The Plow Boys band in a large open area behind the coffee shop. Harris said she and her twin sister like working there with their parents. Jana Peterson/Pine Journal
Darrel Baker orders a drink from Emma Harris, 15, Friday, Jan. 19, at Common Ground coffee shop and deli in West End Cloquet in the building that housed the former Chief Theater. Baker came to see his friend, bass player Mark Sjelin, perform with The Plow Boys band in a large open area behind the coffee shop. Harris said she and her twin sister like working there with their parents. Jana Peterson/Pine Journal

The marquee lights were flashing Friday night at the Chief Theater in West End Cloquet. "Open, Open, Open," they announced.

Just inside the doorway, where the lobby of the movie house once stood, the staff at the Common Ground Coffee Shop & Deli were busy making coffee drinks for customers. Meanwhile, the groovin' sounds of The Plow Boys wafted out from the other side of the wall, where the local jazz/blues and gospel band played to a crowd of 40-some people in the space once occupied by the movie theater itself.

There was no charge to enter, and no one hawking any alcoholic beverages. That's part of what the new owners, the nonprofit group Kingdom Builders Ministries, were hoping to see when they signed a contract to purchase the building last summer.

"The only thing I know is we're supposed to change the culture of Cloquet," Kingdom Builders Board President Lee Harris said. "I'm not sure how."

The name of the new venture, "Common Ground," seems to indicate one possible path.

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Harris is joined on the board by his wife, Julie, along with Ron and Shannon Thomsen, Bruce and Tami Matuszak, Lauri Bodin and Steve McGarvey. There are other supporters too, like Paul Nordvall, who said he has a "prayerful stake" in the venture. He was part of the group that looked at several West End properties before the former movie theater came into the picture.

"There's going to be a lot of things that go on here that help the spiritual end of our community," Nordvall said. "There were 25 people at the Sunday (ministry team) meeting from all different church communities, just coming together because they want to reach out and do good things for people."

Harris is also excited about the Sunday meeting, where at least a dozen new people volunteered who want to help with the coffee shop, as well as the myriad possibilities for the new building.

Reinvented ... again

It's been a long time since the theater floor was leveled and a second floor added to create even more space upstairs. Since then, the building has housed an antique mall, several coffee shops, a child care center, a church and more.

Much of the historic building appears to be in great shape. The giant space where the band played on Friday has tables and chairs scattered in the open space between partially walled off areas along the sides. A children's play area occupies one, while another looks like someone plonked a comfy home library into the space. Several hold more tables and chairs.

Throughout the room, giant 12-by-12-inch wooden beams support an upstairs floor, where 120 old balcony seats are separated from another stage by an expansive wooden floor, a space perfect for 200-300 music fans too excited to sit. Harris figures once they renovate the back entrance to the building so there are exits both ways, the upstairs space could comfortably hold 300-400 people for larger events.

"The building should satisfy everyone," Harris said. "We have a kids play area, date nights for moms and dads. We want to have a space where you can go out and hear great music, have good beverages and food not in a bar atmosphere. I'd love to have on all the football games on Sundays, do a sober football party. There's all kinds of things we can do."

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The Friday night music gig was the first at Common Ground, although a group of about 150 home-school students did hold a very well-attended swing dance party recently, and they plan to return.

Plow Boys guitarist Jim Rogers said the local group was "testing the water" for Kingdom Builders, to see how the music sounded and whether people would come out.

Both questions got a positive answer. The acoustics were good - the band brought its own equipment - and the crowd eventually filled most of the tables.

"We haven't played out for a bit, and this is a great venue," said Rogers, a well-known physician in town. "It's a great local venue with room and space, and a vision for Cloquet."

Michelle Kantonen said she liked knowing that there was less risk of any fighting or yelling, versus going to a bar. And she likes the people.

"I know a couple people in the band, and I also like the organization that does this," she said. "So I came out not only to support the band but to support the ministry too.

It was a good learning experience, Harris said, especially in advance of their big event at 6 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 28, featuring Juice the Comedian, along with Christian hip-hop artist TRU-SERVA and Minnesota indie-pop singer Karah. Next time, Harris said, he will make sure there are more desserts available for customers.

There will be no charge for admission Sunday, although freewill donations are accepted. All are welcome, regardless of economic or religious beliefs.

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Love and compassion

When asked what the purpose behind Kingdom Builders taking on this new building and coffee shop, Harris brings up "marketplace Christianity."

"I think it's supposed to look more like love and compassion," Harris said in an interview the Monday after the music night. "It should look different than a business that's not based on that."

Almost on cue, a young couple enter the building. Harris recognizes them from Friday night, when they were outside the building using the free wireless internet, but refused to come in. This time they come in, and Harris offers them a couple of sandwiches and hot drinks, on the house.

"Are you sure?" the woman asks. Harris reassures her.
And that act of kindness, too, is what the board of Kingdom Builders hoped for.

Marketplace Christianity can be giving people food when you see that they need it, Harris said. Or choosing to sell coffee grown and sold by women in underprivileged countries who are earning a fair wage rather than being exploited.

After they've eaten and before they leave, Harris tells the couple he is going to leave a note for staff that they should give them food at no charge whenever they ask for it. If the four apartments at the back of the building were livable - the group plans to renovate and turn the apartments into transitional housing in the future - he would probably have offered them one on the spot.

If it sounds counter-intuitive to give the products away, just know that the Kingdom Builders Ministry isn't in it to make money. A sign proclaims that 100 percent of the profits from the coffee shop and deli will be used to fund activities such as live music, movie nights and more.

Harris readily admits that the Kingdom Builders group haven't been following any well defined plan. Rather, they've just been praying and listening, and acting on what they hear.

That's how they got started hosting the Wood City Music Festival almost five years ago, which has drawn thousands of people to Cloquet's Veterans Park each August for a daylong Christian music festival, growing substantially each year since then.

Back in the interview, Harris jumps from talking about prayer and helping people in need, to music venues and the joys of making coffee.

"There's so much to do, I keep telling myself we've only been here three months," Harris said.

"We want to utilize this building 24/7 if we can, with prayer and music. Make it a fun place for teens and others to hang out in the evenings ... and change people."

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IF YOU GO

There will be music and comedy at Common Ground on Sunday, Jan. 28, featuring Juice the Comedian - a family-friendly Christian comedian based in Minneapolis - along with Christian hip-hop artist TRU-SERVA and Minnesota native singer Karah, described as an indie-pop singer. Doors open at 5 p.m. and show starts at 6 p.m. No admission, although freewill donations are accepted. All are welcome.

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Related Topics: CLOQUET
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