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Twin Town High (vol. 8)
Minneapolis Parks, Inc.
Wednesday 23 February @ 00:44:53
Recent commercialization efforts draw controversy
by Elaine Klaassen
Anyone who has been to the South Dakota Badlands and Black Hills realizes that it’s one of the most beautiful areas in the country. Anyone who has been there also has noted that it’s horribly commercialized, from signs in the roadways to cheap souvenir stands to fees just for driving down the highway. You leave the area with two thoughts: one, this is a special place, and two, it didn’t take us long to ruin it.
Visitors to Minneapolis for a century have been amazed by its park system. This
urban forest is vast, unique, egalitarian, user-friendly, poetic—and,
in 2005, short of funds. Federal and Minnesota state budgets have been tight
the last few years, and aid to local government agencies, including the Minneapolis
Park & Recreation Board (MPRB), has been reduced.
are other costs. Health care for park board employees is skyrocketing, as it
is for everyone else. Dutch Elm Disease is rampant and expensive to deal with.
Depression-era park improvements are wearing out and need to be replaced. Demand
for new sports facilities for soccer and action sports like inline skating and
skateboarding is growing. At the same time, MPRB has embarked on an ambitious
gentrification of the city’s riverfront with many new parks.
So the park board has been looking for new sources of revenue to supplement
its usual income from property taxes, local government aid and grants. A majority
of the park board decided to expand its commercialization of the parks.
The park board has for decades run golf courses, concession stands, rental operations
and special events on park property. This can be profitable; for example, the
golf courses made around $1.3 million last year. The concession stands have
not done as well, losing as much as $125,000 a year. The board has decided to
enter into partnerships with restaurateurs in hopes of increasing their concession
The first experiment of five planned partnerships started last year at Lake
Calhoun. Private restaurateurs opened the Tin Fish Restaurant in the concessions
building, which serves the park board’s traditional popcorn, ice cream
and hotdogs, but also a variety of fish entrées.
In its first year, the Tin Fish grossed $447,000 in revenue, and the park board
received a percentage amounting to $51,000. The concession stand—which
in previous years has lost money or made only a small profit—quadrupled
its sales, and the board was encouraged to try similar ventures elsewhere.
The board also moved its headquarters into cheaper digs. Instead of paying $430,000
a year in rent and parking in downtown Minneapolis, it bought a building at
2117 River Road in North Minneapolis for $3 million. The lowest of two assessments
on the value of the building was $3.2 million. The rehab was pretty expensive—around
$2.5 million—but the new facility has plenty of parking and several times
the room of their old headquarters. The board plans to rent part of the building
to help pay the mortgage.
Other joint ventures were started. Neiman Athletic Complex, near Fort Snelling,
containing 13 first-class baseball, softball and soccer fields, was built with
$6 million worth of bonds and made available for rent. In addition, the park
board bought one of the buildings at Fort Snelling and joined with a group called
The Fort LLC to open an action sports center with indoor and outdoor skateparks
and a climbing gym.
At Lake Harriet, the board planned to replace the concessions stand with a Dairy
Queen. On Lake Calhoun, the board proposed a combined venture with the Lake
Calhoun Sailing Club to build five buildings on the south shore, including concessions,
an event center and a new boathouse.
The going got tough for the board, though, when the skeptical public got involved.
When the public found out about the proposed DQ at Lake Harriet, residents bombarded
their commissioners with e-mails and phone calls. They were afraid of giant
billboards, tacky logos—in other words, the Black Hills effect. They didn’t
want a corporate monster invading their pristine forests. The commissioners
listened to the voice of the people and the project was canceled.
The neighborhood response to the yacht club complex was equally strong. The
windsurfers, who like that area, hated the idea. The buoys would be a hazard
to them. They claim there is a sandbar in the area that would be dangerous to
sailboats. Naturalists claimed it would disturb the family of loons that live
in that part of the lake and scare away the occasional bald eagle.
Neighbors were worried that the traffic, already heavy in the summer time, would
be exacerbated, not only by sailing club patrons, but also by users of the event
center and concessions. “Why can’t you build it on the north shore
of the lake, where the bathhouse used to be?” they asked.
Users of Neiman Fields are complaining about rental fees, which run about $250
per game for adults, and also about the proposed increases in those fees. There’s
trouble with the Fort LLC project, and park board critics on the internet are
complaining about the $1.7-million lien that has been placed by contractors
on the park board building that was partially rehabbed to house the skatepark.
Many private citizens are concerned about cost overruns on the project.
Park watchers are also criticizing the new headquarters building, nicknamed
now the Park Board Taj Mahal. Yes, the rehab was expensive, but renting out
the first floor was supposed to pay the mortgage. However, in November, unbeknownst
to the whole board, plans were made to move the park police into the new building,
with a request for $350,000 in moving expenses. This led Commissioner Rochelle
Berry-Graves to ask where the rent money was going to come from to pay the mortgage.
Last year the park board doubled the fees for marathons in Minneapolis, effective
this year. The director of the Twin Cities Marathon, held in October, announced
his organization will absorb the increased cost. The director of the another
marathon, September’s City of Lakes Marathon, said they may cancel the
event because of the increased cost.
There are dangers to commercialization, but the obvious one, the Black Hills
effect, isn’t really noticeable at Lake Calhoun’s Tin Fish. The
concession stand is the same, there are no big signs, the plaza rehab is beautiful,
just the menu has changed.
Another danger is that the board and its lawyer may not have the experience
to engage in multimillion dollar business ventures. Commissioner Vivian Mason
says going into business is not the purpose of the park board.
“We shouldn’t build things we’re not ready to run,”
Many people fear a more commercialized park system will be less accessible.
They’re afraid the parks will become filled with money-making operations
too expensive for the average person.
Shawne FitzGerald, a lifelong park lover, says, “I have two grandchildren.
I don’t want to hear them say, ‘Gramma, give me $5 for the water
park, give me $5 for the put-put [a proposed miniature golf course].’”
FitzGerald is also concerned that doing big projects like Neiman Fields diverts
money from the needs of the parks. She says the parks can’t afford porta-potties,
wading pools, lifeguards for the beaches, warming houses, necessary staff, nor
can they efficiently take care of the Dutch Elm Disease crisis or monitor the
water quality of lakes.
The mission of the park board is to preserve, protect and maintain our parks.
The nine-member park board is split, 5 to 4, on how to best accomplish this.
The majority has embarked on an aggressive commercialization plan, but that
may change if the board lineup changes after the March election.
Park board meetings are held twice a month, the first and third Wednesdays of
the month, at 2117 River Road. Check MinneapolisParks.org for times,
or call 612-230-6400. Live broadcasts of board meetings can be seen on channel
14 and 79 of the Minneapolis Time Warner Cable Network. Webcasts of the four
most recent board meetings are available on the internet at MinneapolisParks.org,
then to site map, then to webcast archives. You can also get a DVD of board
Minneapolis Park Watch (MplsParkWatch.org)
is an ad hoc group of park-loving citizens who have concerns about how the park
board does business. With a core group of eight to 20 people, they inform and
educate the public. Commissioner Mason says she is grateful for them.
Park board lawyer Brian Rice says some of their online comments approach slander,
which could be true—and some of the comments are in poor taste, like the
psychological analysis of one commissioner as having “a lifelong scar
from being the kid who was picked on.” However, there are also many thoughtful,
responsible bloggers on the site.
New park board commissioners will be elected this year. Get informed. And vote.
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