John Chamness has come a long way since he held a Salvation Army flag at the bottom of an old Coeur d’Alene gravel pit, claiming the site for a proposed Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center.
Then, he was a Salvation Army major charged with fundraising, construction, and opening the $72 million center. Now, after six years in Hawaii, he has begun new duties in southern California.
California South is the largest Salvation Army division in the world, an area with 22 million residents, stretching from the Mexican border to San Luis Obispo, from the Pacific Ocean to Palm Desert. He and his wife, Lani, are directing 51 Salvation Army churches, as well as numerous soup kitchens, homeless shelters, transitional housing, domestic violence programs, and more.
Although his duties have expanded considerably, one thing remains the same. Controversy.
Soon after they began their new duties July 22, the Chamnesses ran into a hubbub near a Salvation Army homeless shelter in Bell, Calif. John appeared on NBC Channel 4 to explain why a proposed gravel yard, with 1,000 trucks kicking up dust daily, could harm some of the community’s most vulnerable individuals. He questioned whether the Cemex company had undergone proper public scrutiny.
In Coeur d’Alene, John and the Salvation Army, along with then Mayor Sandi Bloem and other Kroc Center supporters, were the focus of repeated attacks by community naysayers.
In a phone interview, John recalled those days.
“I learned a lesson (in Coeur d’Alene),” he said. “Once you have a vision, don’t let it go.”
Also, John learned not to be intimidated by “trials and challenging individuals.”
“Every week, I’d open the newspaper and read how bad the Kroc Center was,” he said. “I could have let that discourage me. But it was super important to complete (the project). In the end, we had a beautiful place for the people of North Idaho.”
Here are some of the challenges the Chamnesses, Bloem, and others faced in landing the construction grant from the Kroc Foundation and building a center under the Salvation Army banner:
• Opponents challenged a land swap for the construction site at the south end of Ramsey Park.
• Opponents challenged the legality of a $3 million contribution from the city of Coeur d’Alene’s rainy-day fund.
• One opponent claimed that the dirt to fill the giant pit was part of some “sweetheart deal” with a contractor. The accusation prompted many in the community to refer to this early part of the project, in jest, as “Dirtgate.”
• Some claimed wildly that the city would have to underwrite the Kroc Center because it wouldn’t attract enough members to stand on its own financially.
• Finally, when all else failed, about 20 opponents fired off a letter to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Cowering behind anonymity, this group wanted Americans United to stop the Kroc Center on grounds that a Salvation Army church was part of it. The organization sent a threatening letter to the city. But nothing came of it.
All the rear-guard actions failed.
The Kroc Center has exceeded the dreams of Chamness and the Salvation Army, who had hoped that it might attract 1,500 members during the first year of operation. Chamness remembers the long lines that greeted the opening of the Kroc Center on May 11, 2009. Within three months, the center boasted a membership of 15,500. The enthusiasm for the place continues today.
Chamness is equally proud that he was able to re-open a Salvation Army church in Coeur d’Alene. One had existed between 1911 and 1939.
Now, he believes that the opposition to the Kroc Center “helped in the long run.” The negative attacks spurred local residents to give far more than needed for the required local match of $5 million.
“It crystalized our community to come forward,” he said. “McEuen Park received the same opposition from the same group of people.”
Chamness hailed the key people who joined him in pushing the Kroc Center through to completion, including Mayor Bloem, Sandi Patano, Jack Riggs, and Sue Thilo. Chamness remembers a conversation in which Bloem acknowledged the constant criticism from the usual suspects and said: “I care more for this community than being mayor. I want to do what’s right for this community.”
Fifty years from now, Chamness predicted, Bloem and the others who survived the epic struggles to build the Kroc Center, McEuen Park, and other worthy public projects will “be hailed as heroes.”
As will John and Lani Chamness.
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D.F. Oliveria is a Coeur d’Alene-based journalist and Press subscriber.