Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

A vision for a Korean Cultural Center in Ely

Yoons make plans for former Community Center

Keith Vandervort
Posted 4/24/19

ELY – Byonchan and Africa Yoon say they hope to soon be active community members in Ely as they advance their goal of converting the city’s former community center building into a Korean Cultural …

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A vision for a Korean Cultural Center in Ely

Yoons make plans for former Community Center


ELY – Byonchan and Africa Yoon say they hope to soon be active community members in Ely as they advance their goal of converting the city’s former community center building into a Korean Cultural Center.

The Yoons spoke to an overflowing Tuesday Group audience this week about their visions and plans for developing a cultural learning facility for Korean/American families and Korean adoptees who call America, and especially Minnesota, their home.

Byonchan Yoon is the co-founder and president of the K America Foundation, while his wife, Africa, is the foundation’s executive director. The K America Foundation bought the community center from the city of Ely last fall for $30,000.

The Minneapolis couple has proposed to renovate the historic landmark, built in the 1930s, and repurpose it into a facility to house Korean culture and heritage camps.

Despite a racially-charged community discussion over the issue last year, terms of the purchase agreement allow for a six-year window, and a possible three-year extension, for the new owners to complete millions of dollars in renovations and move forward with their dream. Otherwise, the building could revert back to city ownership.

Byonchan Yoon described himself as a technology leader with a deep understanding of coding languages and extensive experience in the entertainment, education and nonprofit sectors. He began his career helping nonprofit organizations leverage technology to promote their mission and programs. He is currently a technology leader for an international media corporation. “I am driven to share my love of Korean culture and unite communities,” he said.

“Why are we in Ely?” asked Africa Yoon as she introduced herself. “I came from a family of African diplomats,” she said. “My father was a United Nations ambassador. I come from a home where using who you are to help the world is important.” She said she has visited many places around the world, from Asia to Africa, big cities and small towns.

“People ask me, why I would choose to go to Ely? My answer is, ‘Why wouldn’t I? Have you been there?’” she said. “Ely is a little like the small village that I come from in West Africa. There are a lot of the same values here. This is a place, for myself, that I could call home.”

Africa Yoon admitted that the couple stayed out of the process of obtaining the building. “Some of that was a little hairy, as I read in the newspapers, but there was also a lot of support,” she said. “We wanted to come up and greet the community. We look at the community center and feel a real love for it. We want to include ourselves into the community and want the community to be part of what we are doing.”

She stressed the importance of having the Ely community be part of the Korean Cultural Center. “I am open for you to tell us how you think what we are doing here is interesting to you,” Yoon said.

“I am looking for the next three years to build a community of Korean/American families, and Korean adoptees,” she added. “I am literally meeting people one-on-one. I believe that is the best way to build community. That will become the core of the programs of the K America Foundation.”

She described the Ely Korean Cultural Center to be utilized as a camp in the summer that would be free to all interested Korean adoptees, or their children. “There will be a dance component and a technology component,” Yoon said. “The children will be able to learn the Korean language, or some K-Pop choreography, and the most important thing is that they will be able to go outside. I mean outside in Ely. They might learn computer coding technology, and then go back outside.”

Yoon said the former community center will have a minimalist Korean interior design. “It is like log-cabin simplicity or feeling. Please come and experience it that way. We look forward to building on the friendship between Koreans and Americans.”

She touched on grants and fundraising as part of a diverse financial picture that could include crowd-funding ventures. “I’m focusing on the people and the Korean/American community,” she said.

Byonchan Yoon described his warm welcome to Ely as he embarks on the Korean Cultural Center here. “As a parent of mixed-race Korean children, this project is so deeply personal for me,” he said.

As he was looking for a home for the K America Foundation, he asked, “Where are the Koreans?” The largest population of Koreans in America is in Los Angeles, he said. “In America, the highest concentration of Korean adoptees is right here in Minnesota,” he said. “America has the largest concentration of Korean adoptees in the world, so the most Korean adoptees in the world are right here in this state. That’s where we wanted to be.”

He noted that the Twin Cities have many Korean adoptee programs. “We wanted to go to rural Minnesota where there aren’t so many of those programs. We wanted a hometown that is already a destination in and of itself. Ely attracts people from all over,” he said.

Korean culture is becoming a world wide phenomenon right now, according to Yoon. “The timing is right for K America (Foundation), and Ely is really the perfect location. We were so grateful to find the beloved community center building and are honored and grateful to your community,” he said.


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