The following article by Alex Ebert was published in the July 26, 2010 edition of the StarTribune:
Brendan Sullivan, Star Tribune
Customers of Tin Fish restaurant have a view of Lake Calhoun spread out in front of them. The Park Board is looking at more eateries in city parks as a way to make up for budget cutbacks. The board is also contemplating peddling some long-stored sculptures.
PARKS THINK GREEN, AS IN CASH
Faced with a shrunken budget, Minneapolis park leaders hope a combination of bikes, burgers and an Italian sculptor named Brioschi will stave off further cuts to the popular and nationally known park system.
Park board commissioners are talking of raising revenue through selling donated marble sculptures, increasing the number of concession stands and holding more sponsored events as part of a pronounced shift toward business ventures to make up for declining state aid.
“We’ve cut so much, if we cut more deeply moving into the future it would be really obvious to our citizens,” said John Erwin, president of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.
One marquee loss for the city that’s home to the Aquatennial is the lack of lifeguards at most park beaches on weekdays.
“We’re the city of lakes with beaches” cutting back on lifeguards, said Commissioner Bob Fine, who was a lifeguard in college. “I don’t want to see us cutting back any more on youth sports or the beaches or maintenance.”
Park-goers seem ready for the business embrace, to a point. Three-quarters of park-goers surveyed in 2009 said the board should partner with business to “support operations,” leading the board to kick around ideas from trinket sales to event management. But they expressed caution about making parks too commercial, such as by adding corporate names to popular venues.
“We’re not entrepreneurs,” Commissioner Scott Vreeland said. But alternatives are quickly disappearing, he added.
Cuts to park services — from lifeguards to senior citizen programs — often mean residents need to travel farther to have needs met.
“We’ve been making cuts in the system that have made it very difficult,” Fine said. “We’re not providing the services we should.”
Minneapolis’ struggle to make up for declining state aid reflects the struggle of many cities around the state.
According to the 2010 budget, “community recreation services” took a nearly $150,000 hit, the largest among any park department. Park police, environmental and customer services departments each took close to $80,000 cuts. Park employment is down more than 100 positions from a high of 951 in 2001.
“This year we reduced costs to make this up,” Erwin said. But the board will need to find more funding if it wants to continue all of its services, he added.
“That’s our only choice,” he said.
BIKES, BURGERS, BRIOSCHI
At a recent Park Board meeting, commissioners laid out a series of potential business ideas, from annual events to securing one-time funding by selling off some Italian sculptures.
The board talked about adding $50,000 through a corporate-sponsored spring bike race, similar to the successful Minneapolis Bike Tour in September. Other ideas include fishing or curling competitions.
On the food front, more than 10 businesses are bidding to open a new concession stand at Lake Harriet. The board is talking about adding a restaurant on Lake Nokomis. Those moves could add more than $100,000 in revenue annually, Fine said.
Hungry park-goers at Lake Calhoun’s Tin Fish restaurant last Tuesday said they’d be glad to see more concessions in Minneapolis parks.
Roseville residents Louise Miles and Tom Heinz said they came to Lake Calhoun just to eat at the concession stand.
“This works, and I can see more of this working,” Heinz said while waving a hand toward a long line of waiting customers. “This is a nice user fee.”
Others are more hesitant about too much business emphasis. “Some people are of the opinion that parks shouldn’t be commercialized, but I think they’re losing,” said Harvey Ettinger, a city resident who has gone to most board meetings for the last three years. “The question is, can they do it in a tasteful way where it’s not [like a normal] commercial venture?”
Besides commercial partnerships, the board is also contemplating selling a marble sculpture set that has sat in park storage since the 1950s. The delicate statues were modeled in plaster in 1913 by Carlo (Charles) Brioschi, whose company Brioschi-Minuti remodeled sculptures in the White House and several Minnesota landmarks, including the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, according to state records. The board hopes to net at least $50,000 for the set and put the money toward more public park art.
To keep or enhance the park system, the board will have to think more like a business, said Park Board general manager Mike Schmidt.
“People talk about us becoming more entrepreneurial, willing to take a risk. We need to think in those terms,” he said. “There will be some failures and we will learn and grow from those failures.”