Residents give cash-strapped Minneapolis parks a big hand

·5 min read

The new Logan Park pavilion in Minneapolis was raised on a midsummer morning by a dozen Edison High School football players heaving an old-school system of ropes and pulleys as onlookers cheered from the sidewalk.

The boys needed a community service project to earn their varsity letters. The Logan Park Neighborhood Association — which had raised $85,000 from its own coffers, the Minneapolis Parks Foundation and GiveMN to construct the pavilion — needed muscle.

"Our hope, starting next year, is some sort of multicultural performance series," said Pat Vogel, a neighborhood association board member. "That's our dream."

Improving the park was residents' No. 1 priority in association surveys, she said. The results ended up exceeding Minneapolis Park Board plans because the community pitched in.

The Park Board manages 6,800 acres of parkland and water and can't fund everything residents want as quickly as called for. The Park Board schedules systemwide upgrades under a rigid capital improvement program that considers a six-year financial outlook. Nearly $125 million in work is scheduled through 2026, ranging from $355,000 for a play area rehab at Currie Park to $3.8 million in accessibility improvements across the entire system. Limited funds coupled with pressure to right historic disparities means the agency also follows a complex equity matrix when divvying up funding.

"People love their parks, and they want to play a part in making them better," said Tom Evers, executive director of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation. "One barrier to it just being easy to do is [that] infrastructure in the park system is updated within the context of the whole system. So even though there may be a need … there's only so much they can do each year."

But frustrated with crumbling neighborhood park features, residents sometimes take it upon themselves to raise money and complete fixes.

The agency is grateful, said Superintendent Al Bangoura.

"For more than a century, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and the people it serves have benefited from the generous donations made by community members and organizations," he said. "Civic involvement, collaborative partnerships and financial contributions have enhanced the park system in countless, wonderful, meaningful ways."

Thomas Lowry Park in the affluent Kenwood neighborhood is second-to-last in line for neighborhood park funding. So when its century-old Seven Pools water feature began to crack and leak, park staff proposed filling it with sand because repairs would have cost more than $1 million, said Elizabeth Shaffer of the Friends of Thomas Lowry Park, and a Park Board candidate in November's election.

Neighbors supported the Park Board's priorities and enjoyed being able to crowdsource $630,000 to replace the pools and repave the park path, she said. The Park Board allocated matching funds. Construction crews worked all summer, and the project is slated to be unveiled in a two-day celebration at the end of September.

"It's pretty well-situated to be a lot of people's backyard," Shaffer said of the park. "Particularly our senior community, they know it's a quiet place they can just go and sit on a bench and listen to the water and meet other people that are coming through with their dogs."

The Morgan Tennis Courts, nestled in a woody bend of Minnehaha Creek, celebrated a ribbon-cutting Sunday thanks to local tennis enthusiasts.

After years of deferred maintenance, the surface had sloughed off in patches in part because of an invasion of weeds. And the Washburn High School tennis teams, which once used Morgan as home court, began carpooling to Bloomington after a player got hurt a few years ago.

Washburn tennis mom Beth Gyllstrom called Ellen Doll of Support the Courts, a nonprofit aiming to resurface all the Minneapolis tennis courts that need it. They helped the Park Board raise $335,000 from Hennepin County, the United States Tennis Association, the Lynnhurst Neighborhood Association, Washburn Foundation and individual donors that included students, who donated the proceeds of a tomato stand.

Since 2009, Support the Courts has raised about $1.5 million to help repair 29 Minneapolis courts. Loring Park is next.

"The Park Board had dwindling budgets and little or no money for tennis court renovation, and they were calling for either downsizing or removal of a lot of the courts," Doll said. "We wanted to save the important youth programming that was happening."

On the North Side, community members are spurring an ambitious plan to remake the North Commons Recreation Center into a state-of-the-art, regional hub for youth sports by helping persuade state legislators to invest $5 million in state bonding last year.

"It's well documented, the lack of bonding dollars that have come in for Minneapolis Park projects, period," said Brett Buckner, a longtime community activist. "At the end of the day, we had a project that resonated with not just inner-city Democrats, but also statewide Minnesota Republicans."

The recreation center is in the early planning stages, and the community still needs to weigh in on the design. The Park Board has allocated $1.8 million, and will request $6 million more from the state for a project estimated to cost upward of $20 million.

With recreation centers still closed to the public for general use under COVID-19 restrictions, more than 60 North Side community groups and businesses formed the Seeds to Harvest coalition to provide youth programming in response to the pandemic and social unrest that took place after the murder of George Floyd.

Last month, it hosted the City of Lakes Community Summer Games in North Commons Park, which was a three-week, multisport fête enrolling hundreds of young people across the city in more than a dozen games under the guidance of local coaches. Several world-record attempts were made.

"The goal is to have a place where kids can play and be safe," said Tatiana Freeman, Seeds to Harvest chief of staff. "We really just wanted to make sure that we were driving home not just the importance of the park, but how it supports the larger community."

susan.du@startribune.com 612-673-4028

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