New Mpls. park chief will face full agenda

NEW MPLS PARK CHIEF WILL FACE FULL AGENDA

The following article by Steve Brandt was published in the October 13, 2010 edition of the Star Tribune:

New Mpls. park chief will face full agenda

A Michigan woman is likely to be chosen to oversee the reshaping of the Minneapolis parks and programs, from the upper Mississippi to the lower Minnehaha.

When a new Minneapolis park superintendent is named Wednesday night, that person — likely Jayne S. Miller from Michigan — will be handed an ambitious agenda designed to reach into the lives of city residents.

Expect renewed planning to draw people to the central and upper riverfronts. Expect a push for more teen athletics and maybe homework help in the evening at rec centers. Expect a greening initiative — maybe more tree planting or composting.

Plus, the next chief will need to maintain parks and recreation programs with a budget that’s buying less due to state aid cuts.

Miller seems to be the consensus choice among commissioners heading into their 5 p.m. meeting, based on interviews this week. She was also the clear favorite among park enthusiasts who watched interviews of three finalists last week.

Those who support her like her directness, her manner of dealing with people and the way she did her homework before commissioners interviewed candidates last week. For example, she spent time visiting city recreation centers.

She dealt head-on with why she abruptly left her job after heading a large suburban Detroit park district after only six months, contending that the board there wasn’t willing to make the organizational changes needed to meet budget cutbacks she was hired to address.

She deftly let commissioners know that she’s in a same-sex relationship, on the way to praising Minneapolis as a good fit for her, personally, because it shares the progressive politics she encountered in Ann Arbor.

That’s where Miller, 52, rose in 23 years from bike coordinator to effectively a deputy city manager with responsibilities beyond parks. Some commissioners say her experience in community development and housing will be helpful in weaving parks into urban redevelopment.

The next superintendent faces challenges aplenty. The number of full-time workers who maintain and staff city parks has dropped from more than 600 to fewer than 500. That number could drop more if there’s another big state aid cut.

Superintendent candidates detected anxiety among remaining staff in the face of a reorganization that sliced 21 jobs, two-thirds of them management, and sent 13 people packing. That saved money, but Miller said the next superintendent will need to provide some stability.

Yet even as operating money is tightening, the Park Board has adeptly acquired capital money to add to regional parks and develop them. The new state Legacy Fund and levies imposed by an obscure water agency that manages the Mississippi in Minneapolis augment those opportunities.

The riverfront is getting renewed attention after a hiatus that followed the adoption of a master plan in 2000 to reshape the upper riverfront with parks, housing and light industry.

Now the city has hired a consultant to re-examine the plan’s economic feasibility. A public-private Riverfront Development Corp. is operating, based on a St. Paul model; it hosted a boat trip Tuesday to publicize riverfront development opportunities.

There’s a new design competition for the river north of the Stone Arch Bridge that will attempt to build on existing master plans. The competition will determine who gets hired as a consultant to sketch a design framework for the area, including some specific proposals for access points that may go beyond typical pavilion-and-path park plans. It could led to more ambitious attempts to create riverfront destinations that lure park users the way the Lake Harriet bandshell now does.

That effort is being fostered by interim Superintendent David Fisher, who has been aggressive during his brief tenure, drawing on his longtime stint as parks chief to undo some of the district approach to managing parks instituted by predecessor Jon Gurban.

The competition is underwritten by the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, which is raising private money and trying to boost investments in city parks. It also sponsored a lecture series that has attempted to stimulate discussion of how new parks may be located on waste space and serve new audiences.

For example, park planners need to think about responding to new cultures, older populations and other changing demographics while fostering more contact between generations and enough use to keep parks safe.

The lecture series has recruited speakers who were involved in creating Chicago’s multi-use Millennium Park and New York’s High Line public greenway on an abandoned el track.

Some park enthusiasts envision major opportunities on the newly bought 10-acre Scherer lumberyard upriver from Boom Island Park.

John Erwin, who returned to the Park Board in January and was elected its president, said the revamped board has a lengthening list of accomplishments, including planting 6,500 trees this year, retaining Fisher and conducting a superintendent search that culminates Wednesday night.

Other accomplishments include resolving issues of park dedication fees and storm water charges with the city, and resolving issues that stymied the rebuilding of the lower Minnehaha Creek glen.

Miller, the favorite to get the parks chief job, is an avid cyclist whose partner has relatives in the Twin Cities area and has attended pro cycling races here.