VIRGINIA — Dr. Dave Brenner will always have a soft spot for the Virginia community, the patients he served there, and for the lakes and woods of northeastern Minnesota.
Thanks to a piece of forested, lakeshore land, the retired urologist will leave a lasting legacy to the city where he worked and lived.
The Virginia Community Foundation will have a permanent home, for the first time in its history, because of a generous gift from the former physician, said VCF Executive Director Rhonda “Rudy” Harvey.
Brenner donated a 6.9-acre piece of land near Ely to the VCF, and its sale will allow the foundation to move a couple blocks down Chestnut Street to its new, forever home — in the building that has housed Silver Lake Floral.
“To have a donation to cover the cost (of purchasing and moving into the building) and not take from the endowment — that’s a big thing to happen for the foundation,” Harvey said. The VCF works to improve and enrich the quality of life in Virginia through the permanent endowment.
VCF is footing the bill for the purchase of the building until the parcel of land is sold, at which time the funds will be immediately replaced, she said.
The undeveloped lakeshore property on Eagles Nest Lake No. 4. is listed at $185,000 at Pfremmer Realty. A portion of the proceeds will go to the building purchase and initial re-opening costs.
The foundation is expected to close on the floral shop building Aug. 30 and move in by Sept. 30, Harvey said.
“I didn’t believe it would happen in my lifetime,” she said of the move. “The foundation has always been located in donated space.”
And that was becoming a growing concern for VCF. So much so, it had formed an ad hoc committee to look into finding a new space.
To understand the significance of relocating to a permanent residence, it’s helpful to look back at the foundation’s history, Harvey said.
It all started nearly 30 years ago, when Virginia resident Marieta Johnson and a friend were walking around Bailey’s Lake one day and noticed much debris littering the shoreline. They organized a cleanup, and Johnson landed a $500 grant for that first sprucing up of the Virginia lake.
That sparked another idea. Johnson and a small group of residents thought about starting a “community savings account” to provide resources for such projects that could benefit Virginia.
In 1990, the group created the savings account they’d envisioned. The City of Virginia offered initial funding, and the Virginia Community Foundation was established as a fund of the Northland Foundation.
Carol Sundquist, its first executive director, worked from her Virginia home. Then, in 2000, Linda Niskanen was hired as executive director. Unable to work from home, she needed an office, Harvey explained.
That’s when Sundquist’s husband, Kurt Sundquist, then president of Northern State Bank in Virginia, donated a storefront space he had not far from the bank at 519 Chestnut St.
About that same time, with support from the Northland Foundation, VCF was established as an independent nonprofit community foundation.
“We wouldn’t be where we are now” with the foundation’s success without the longtime, temporary home, Harvey noted.
During recent years, “we knew Kurt was going to be selling the bank,” and the ad hoc committee was formed, she said. When Northern State Bank sold more than a year ago, “part of the deal was whoever purchased it would continue to donate this space.”
John Post, the new bank president, and shareholders agreed to do that, she said.
But for board members and staff, it was always in the back of their minds that the office was still only a temporary location, Harvey said.
The ad hoc committee looked at several other possible sites, including the old Maco Theater on Chestnut Street.
“Then we found out Maija (Biondich) was selling the building” at 303 Chestnut St., where her floral shop has been in business since 1996, Harvey said.
From there, everything just seemed to fall into place, she said.
Brenner, who worked in Virginia from September 1990 to July 2001, and then, after retirement, lived in the area from May 2012 to July 2018, contacted VCF about providing the donation.
Brenner had been active in the foundation and was happy to have a portion of the gift go toward the purchase and relocation, Harvey said.
VCF made an offer on the building, the longtime florist accepted, the building was inspected and passed code, and the parcel of land for sale was placed in the VCF’s name.
The listing can be found at www.pfremmerrealty.com. It is described as having “good access to (the) property with very quiet surroundings” and more than 400 feet of shoreline. “Expected building site overlooks the lake with a gentle slope and wilderness views of the shoreline across the bay,” according to the listing.
The purchase price is negotiable, Harvey said.
VCF’s current location will be up for rent from Northern State Bank.
“This was the best case scenario, to have a donor so we don’t have to fund” the re-location, she said. “It will be good for the community.”
Harvey added that she’s been a longtime customer of Silver Lake Floral, and “I’m sad to see it go. It’s bittersweet.”
The floral shop’s last day of business is Aug. 23.
VCF will continue to bring life into the building, which “won’t be left empty,” Harvey noted. It’s eight to 10 times bigger than the foundation’s current location, she said.
There will be space for “smaller, intimate events,” such as VCF’s Christmas boutique; the foundation even purchased some holiday items from Biondich, she said.
It will also be headquarters for the Festival of Trees, set for Nov. 20 to 23 this year at the Virginia Elks Club, with plenty of room to store the trees and items. VCF for the second year will collaborate with the City of Virginia, ReVive Virginia, the Laurentian Chamber of Commerce and Essentia Health Foundation on the fundraiser.
Harvey said other plans for the new home include a “hospitality station” that business people could use when in town; a boardroom area where “coffee klatches” could meet; and room for consignment art.
The foundation is also looking into a creative new sign for the outside of the building.
There will be other expenses, Harvey added, such as putting in a handicapped-accessible restroom, sectioning off portions of the interior, and upgrading technology. “We will be meeting with an architect,” she said. “Anyone can make a donation to the new home and operating budget.”
Harvey said she will miss all the “good neighbors” on the current block, but is looking forward to being on “another busy block.”
It was important to remain downtown, she noted. It’s something that the Koski brothers, also, wanted.
Wesley and Hartley Koski, supporters of the VCF, willed their combined estates of more than $1 million to the foundation, which VCF received upon Hartley’s death in 1997. The brothers were second-generation owners of their father’s store, Koski Hardware and Furniture, which opened in the 1920s on Chestnut Street.
In 2008, VCF created two non-endowed funds, the Downtown Revitalization and Virginia Mural funds. That year, Virginia’s first mural depicting the Koski brothers was installed on a building at the corner of Chestnut Street and Second Avenue.
Harvey said VCF’s new home will also have space to better display photos and keepsakes of the foundation’s history.
And the board is excited for the future, she said.
VCF’s current endowment is at $4.6 million. VCF oversees 12 charitable funds and has given $715,000 in grants to the community, Harvey said.
She added that the foundation’s Virginia school-related funds will continue and VCF is “100 percent on board” with a Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert school consolidation. Whatever happens as the matter moves forward, “we are ready to make a change in order to support the school and the kids.”
There are good things ahead for the VCF, beginning with having “a permanent home, forever now,” thanks to Dr. Brenner, who now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., Harvey said.
Brenner said in an email that “the people of northeastern Minnesota have a huge place in the heart of this packsacker. The beauty of the northeast Minnesota forests and lakes have sustained my spirit and continue to do so.
“As a physician I found the Iron Range to be the most professionally rewarding place I ever had the privilege to work. My patients were cooperative, grateful and (mostly) tough as nails. I have made many lifelong friends on the Range and in so many ways consider it my home.”