Kyle Clayton
About 60 volunteers helped till, dig and plant on Saturday for the new community garden at the Mosquito Lake Community Center that organizers want to use to increase food security in the borough.

About 60 volunteers helped cultivate a new community garden Saturday at the Mosquito Lake Community Center.

Organizer Erika Merklin has been trying to reinvigorate the building since earlier this year. She envisions the former Mosquito Lake School to be a multipurpose community center that offers child care services, gardening and fitness classes and, most importantly, a vehicle toward food security in Haines.

Merklin has been fighting to keep the center funded after the borough assembly approved a complete cut to the facility last month. On Tuesday, in the final vote on this year’s budget, the assembly unanimously approved $10,000 for the center from CARES Act funding for food security. Additionally, in a 4-3 vote with Mayor Jan Hill breaking the tie, the assembly voted to spend an additional $10,000 from borough coffers with members Gabe Thomas, Brenda Josephson and Jerry Lapp opposed.

In December, Merklin said she had the idea to host yoga classes in the community center. A group began to meet weekly beginning in January. Since then, she has planted all of the vegetable starts in the center’s greenhouse and has the ultimate aim to design the facility around permaculture principles.

“As I walked around, I thought this is the opportunity of a lifetime to take this gem and turn it into what it’s capable of. I just started cleaning up and reorganizing. I wrote a business plan. When COVID came, it made the decision for me.”

Volunteers spent all day Saturday planting kale, cabbage, green beans, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, lettuce and other vegetables in a 6,000 square foot garden. Many of the volunteers cited the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason why growing local food for community distribution is important.

“The only thing that makes sense to me against the backdrop of COVID is growing food because everything else is so uncertain,” Laurie Mastrella said. “Growing food makes sense. I already have my own scene going on for me. I want to donate food to the senior center and the Salvation Army and anyone who needs food.”

Longtime gardener Mardell Gunn echoed those concerns. She grows enough produce at her home to last her through the year, and thinks Haines should have access to local produce as well.

“This is a dream come true for me,” Gunn said. “I have believed that we needed to do this as a community for years. You can see that it takes a huge amount of energy and commitment for it to happen. I love that other people are on board. It’s not something that any one person could do.”

She said the pandemic has shown that our relationship to food shouldn’t be taken for granted. “It’s easy to go to the grocery store and think it’s always going to be there, but I think we’ve been reminded that it won’t always be there and maybe it will look different.”

Gunn there is a consensus that the next step is to figure out how to make the food available to people in Haines. “I think there’s a fair amount of people in this town right now who need to have food. The Salvation Army may be the best access for that.”

Merklin said the center’s garage could be used for food storage.

“We can use this for food storage for the entire community,” Merklin said. “The food that people are getting now comes from thousands of miles away. We could come up with a simple method of distribution where somebody could drive it 26 miles to town.”

At Tuesday’s regular meeting, assembly member Paul Rogers supported both the $10,000 in CARES Act funding and the additional $10,000 in borough funding.

“The people at the Mosquito Lake Community Center have put in a tremendous effort,” he said. “I think if you want them to have a chance to be successful with food security and teaching people how to harvest food, how to grow food and benefit the whole community they need to have the whole season not just the summer but the fall and the spring in order to do that.”

Josephson, who proposed the $10,000 in CARES Act funding, opposed the additional $10,000 in borough funding and said the assembly could revisit additional funding if the borough renegotiates a memorandum of understanding with the Friends of Mosquito Lake that is set to expire Jan. 31, 2021.

“They’ve got an MOU they’ve been working on for four years and it’s been in the last few months we’ve seen this effort. I love this effort. I want to see it continue,” Josephson said. “We’ve got a food security issue. We’ve got funding for it. I think it’s appropriate to fund it out of (the CARES Act) and we’ll see where the energy and the conversation takes us.”

Friends of Mosquito Lake School member Dawn Drotos said the community center has facilitated 120 events since it began managing the facility in 2016. The events included exercise classes, community markets, dances and assembly candidate forums.

Mosquito Lake resident Jim Stanford volunteers to maintain the building. On Saturday, he replaced filters in the water system. He said it’s incumbent on those who care about borough facilities to take extra efforts to keep them going and that they can live with reduced funding in fiscally challenging times.

“We’ll step up out here. The only thing I don’t understand is how this isn’t a model for other facilities in the borough,” Stanford said. “I’m all for the museum, and the library and the Chilkat Center but in these fiscally hard times, if you support the library, you volunteer for the library. If you support the museum, you volunteer for the museum. Same thing for the Chilkat Center.”