Friday, June 22, 2012

Let's fulfill promises made on Benson Park and fund it

I was quoted recently in this story concerning the North Mankato City Council decision to install a plastic playground in a park designated for a nature park. For context, here is the full statement made to the City Council on June 18, 2012:
Mister Mayor and council members. I am Jim Santori a now FORMER member of the Parks & Green Spaces Advisory Committee. In deliberations with other former members, we have prepared a little background for those new to the council and a statement.
1. In 2007, the North Mankato city council formed the Parks and Green Spaces Advisory Committee and told its role was threefold: Planning, advising, and action
2. In 2008, we and city staff surveyed city residents who told us to develop our parks with an emphasis on “natural settings by increasing wildlife habitat and cultivating safe horticultural practices.” Oh yes, and more restrooms.
3. A few months later, the committee, city staff and with the help of a specialty firm in Minneapolis funded by the city council created a Master Plan for Benson Park. It was decided to move away from a neighborhood park and build a world-class regional park that would attract visitors from a wide area. There was even discussion of school buses visiting the park to provide instruction. Residents were telling us to think bold. It was exciting. After public hearings, the plan was approved and can be found on the City’s website.
4. Funding was to come from the local option sales tax. In fact, in January 2009 we were told $625,000 was available for improvements to Benson Park over the next five years.
5. Then in April 2009, the committee was told the city needed a state matching grant of $700,000 but that prospects were good because the grant specifies rolling hill prairies, woodland habitat and oak savannah habitat.
6. Then on September 16, 2011 we were informed that the project needed a state grant of $997,000 from the state – far exceeding what was needed for the five-year plan. We all understood that with state funding cuts, some sacrifices needed to be made. But Benson Park was the only one requiring matching state money to build what appears to be nearly half of the entire long-range project.
7. We had asked for more information and requested the city develop a more long-term parks committee like those operating in St. Peter, New Ulm and Fairmont. Instead, one week later we were told our job was done.
8. Since the plan was formalized, we have seen little significant development except for some seed planting and installation of donated trees.
9. But now with its most recent action the council agreed - on a motion made by the chair of the former Parks & Green Spaces committee - to install a plastic recreation space in the area specifically designated for native plantings, seedlings and interpretive signage.
10. The Master Plan does include multiple playgrounds including a woodland play area, a water play area and further development of Little Bug Bay all of which would be located with a main shelter and second picnic area on the North End of the park.
11. During the comment and development stage of the plan, consideration was given to a playground in the SW corner. However, it was determined that because it lacked adequate infrastructure in which to build a toilet there we should to keep the area above the present picnic area as wildlife habitat. The alternative of porta-potties was contrary to our charge to develop a world-class plan.
12. We are being told the council is following the plan. Respectfully, no it is not. …
13. A playground design and location is contrary to directions from the community to develop a regional park, not a neighborhood park. We understand long delays are frustrating to residents and the pressure to do “something” becomes greater over time. This is why we follow plans rather that make decisions on the latest pressure point.
14. Plastic playground equipment is not following the plan as pointed out earlier. In fact, there are many alternatives to this plastic recreation center. Rep. Terry Morrow reminded me of the community built structure following the ‘98 tornado in St. Peter that incorporated local & regional history. But unlike St. Peter, we have no Parks Committee to provide the council with alternatives.
15. And even the funding, now based on the largesse of the state, is not following the plan. A five-year beginning phase for the park system can be found on page 23 of the Master Plan. It was understood then that more ambitious funding would come later.
16. And despite the guiding principles set forth for the Park committee “to respect the concerns of residents near the parks” there was no discussion with the residents closest to the project many of whom are retired.
17. Therefore in light of this background,
a. we respectfully request the city council reverse its earlier decision and instead work toward a more reliable funding mechanism for development of the Benson Park Master Plan. Without a more reliable funding stream, one commentator told me we should do the honest thing and call this the Cinderella plan – it won’t happen until or if Prince Charming shows up.
b. We also respectfully request revisiting an offer made by the Master Plan's original designers Hoisington Koegler Group Inc to assist in securing the funds necessary to complete the project.
c. And finally, we request the city council more permanently install a Parks and Green Spaces Committee whose mission – again spelled out in the city’s own website – is (NOT WAS) to support and continue to build a world-class park and green spaces system for the city of North Mankato.
It can help the city council – especially new members and now a new city administrator - in future deliberations to understand history and context regarding development and improvement in the parks and green spaces of the city.
There was some discussion by council members who said when they voted for the playground, they thought it was part of the master plan. One council member said this was the first he knew there was a master plan for Benson Park.
After the testimony, the City Council did approve plans to build North Caswell soccer fields estimated to cost about $1 million. However, nothing was budgeted for Benson Park.